Most screenwriters dream of generating a manic bidding war between the big Hollywood studios over their latest spec. Most screenwriters know that all they have to do is come up with that ‘great movie idea’ where the story will instantly unfold in the producer’s mind as soon as he hears the title. Ker-ching. Make that sale baby. And most screenwriters will spend nearly all of their time chewing and fretting over their keyboards in an attempt to attain this nigh-on impossible dream.
But here’s the key: simplicity. You’ll find that a lot of the greatest movie ideas, and screenplays, have an enviable ease to their concept’s core. This specifically refers to ‘genre’ movies. Tentpole pictures (a big summer blockbuster), crime thrillers, romantic comedies, horrors etc. A check through some of the more successful genre flicks will reveal instant appeal with only a casual once-over of the films’ loglines.
They may not be big or clever but they usually suggest that they’ll provide enough popcorn entertainment to make a studio want to get involved. The PROTAGONIST/HERO is easily identifiable, his GOAL basic and clear, and his CONFLICT just as comprehensible. Let’s take a look at 16 Blocks, written by Richard Wenk, directed by Richard Donner and starring Bruce Willis and Mos Def.
Usually you’d expect a certain amount of scorn from both critics and aspiring screenwriters over this type of movie but let’s face it, if you could write a script that would not only sell to the studios but also attract the interest of legendary director Donner and the star power of Willis and Def, then you’d probably bite off your right arm and feed it to yourself in order to make it happen.
Here’s my logline: “A has-been cop has to take a witness sixteen blocks to the courthouse but their trip becomes a minefield of shoot-outs and obstacles as the witness holds the key to police corruption.”
And my brief: “A neat premise is given some effective action and structure but the characterisation and plot slips into easy pockets of cliché and the good guy cop versus the bad guy cops was hard to swallow, despite the ‘twist’ at the end.”
My comments follow. BEWARE: I reveal the film’s big twist and discuss other spoilers. If you’re going to see 16 Blocks, finish reading this post after you’ve been.
“This has a simple and effective premise. A has-been cop has to take a witness sixteen blocks to the courthouse but because the witness is testifying against other policemen, the sixteen block trip becomes fraught with danger. It’s not a high concept movie in the sense that an audience will go to see the film based on the premise alone but it does qualify as a high concept flick because the protagonist’s goal and obstacle is clear and succinct.
The protagonist has a simple task but he’s faced with constant obstacle and opposition. It’s a basic lesson in screenwriting and this script presents itself as a polished genre piece with a solid concept and reliable structure. The premise actually dictates what structure the plot will follow but the writer does well to keep matters reasonably unpredictable and interesting.
But there’s a problem. A few problems. The characterisation and plot detail fall into familiarity and cliché, and do not treat the audience with enough respect. Bruce Willis’s role is the has-been, drunk cop who wants to redeem himself by doing the right thing with Eddie Bunker, the young witness. This is trite and cliché, and didn’t do the early stages of the plot any favours.
It gets worse when Bruce’s cop colleagues turn out to be a nasty bunch of criminals themselves, the very cops that Bruce’s witness is going to testify against. Bruce’s antagonist, Nugent, gamely tries to give justifiable reasons why Eddie should be shot but Bruce decides “no godammit” and gets knee deep in his task to get Eddie to the courthouse on time.
The shoot outs and chases provide good value, up to a point. We’ve pretty much seen this kind of thing in TV cops shows and a hundred other cop films but it all ambles along to a rolling pace and slotted structure, so you can’t go too wrong with what’s going on.
One of the film’s highlights, or maybe that should read ‘more interesting segments’, is when Jack (Bruce) and Eddie take a bus hostage. This raised the bar somewhat and gave the plot more bite because previously it had been working on Jack and Eddie on foot and sigh, getting to know each other. But Jack and Eddie’s characterisation is not very convincing. Jack’s a walking cliché while Eddie’s character is too unbelievable and unrealistic, especially with the case in hand.
For most of the film, the reader is thinking that there’s no way that Nugent, a clever homicide cop, will let Jack and Eddie out of his sight and the writer just, just, gets away with keeping Nugent one step behind. But it all comes to a head in a silly and unsatisfactory manner. After all of Nugent’s nous, Jack easily captures him inside a church (where an affable priest is pleased to see Jack come to church again) and then Jack reveals the ‘twist’ of the film.
The ‘twist’ is that Jack used to be one of Nugent’s corrupt cops so Jack’s determined effort to get Eddie to the courthouse goes a bit beyond Jack just trying to do the right thing. He wants to redeem himself fully from his experiences with Nugent. This is fair enough, it does give some added juice to the plot and characterisation, but it’s just too darn noble.
While Jack’s decision to go against his peers might work on celluloid, in reality it would take a lot more soul searching and justifiable action to come to such a devastating decision. In this flick, it’s Jack’s experience with the amiable Eddie that makes Jack realise he’s got a little bit more petrol left in his tank but the issue of corrupt cops and the necessary corruption they have to take is glossed over in favour of a basic right and wrong that doesn’t fully serve the film.”