16 Blocks HD DVD

In these still early days of HD DVD, it's a little creepy that three of the releases have been films about bad cops: Assault on Precinct 13, Training Day (see below) and now 16 Blocks.

While you wouldn't know it from the length of its theatrical run or its critical reception, 16 Blocks is a terrific film and, for me, superior to the two others mentioned above. It's a modern film with old fashioned sensibilities. Hollywood's current preoccupation with the lead lining in every silver cloud sometimes gets old. 16 Blocks is the only movie in this bad-cop trilogy that left me feeling good about people.

Broken-down, bedraggled, and alcoholic cop Jack Mosley (Bruce Willis, looking every bit the part) is assigned an overtime mission to deliver a witness from lock-up to the courthouse. Things go awry very fast, in ways neither he nor we expect. This isn't a conventional action film, though there are some improbable action set pieces. This bothered a lot of critics who didn't seem troubled by the jaw-dropping coincidence that Training Day needed to make its plot work at all.

Willis, in my opinion, gives a more believable performance here than Denzel Washington's slightly over-the-top work in Training Day&##151;his Oscar for it notwithstanding. But it's Mos Def who turns in the best work here as the petty criminal/witness that Mosley is assigned to transfer. The voice that Def adopts for his motor- mouth character does grate quickly, but once I was drawn into the story its annoyance factor dropped considerably.

This is one of the best-looking HD DVDs available. The picture is incredibly sharp yet still natural-looking. As with Training Day there was no apparent post-production tinkering with color or grain, and it's obvious that the in-camera footage was beautifully shot, including consistently spot-on focus. And there's none of the visible edge-enhancement that mars so many standard DVDs. Bottom line: I find it hard to criticize anything in the video transfer at all.

The audio is similarly superb, though not obviously showy. There are few attention-getting sound effects, and even the music is generally subdued. But everything sounds right. The dialog is clear and uncolored (there's one particularly striking scene in which it's is steered from the center channel to the left and right). The thousands of small, incidental, realistic sounds put you right in the center of the New York street scenes. And the ambience of locations as diverse as the inside of a squad car and a courthouse lobby all sound completely convincing.

This is one of the three HD DVD / DVD combo discs released so far by Warner (the other two are Rumor Has It and Firewall), with the HD DVD transfer on one side and a standard definition DVD transfer on the other. The format works well, though I do miss having a label on the disc. The standard definition DVD side looks very good for a DVD, but after watching the HD DVD version it's clearly a major step down in detail, particularly on a projection screen. The audio on the standard definition DVD side, while perfectly fine, lacks that final dash of air and openness on the HD DVD that separates the merely good from the real.

There's also an alternate ending included on the disc, which may be stitched seamlessly into the movie and watched instead of the theatrical version. It's very different. I'll say no more except for this complaint; the alternate ending is provided only in standard definition, and only on the SD side of the disc. So it may not be spliced into the HD version in any form. Why?

I do have reservations about the economics of combo discs, not to mention the pricing of new titles on HD DVD in general. (All three of the combo discs are recent films and not catalog titles). A list price of nearly $40 each for these titles is alarming—and not likely to help the format succeed. Fortunately, you can get these discs for under $30 on line, but still about $5 too high in my judgment. I want at least one of the new HD disc formats to survive and flourish, and I assume the industry does, too. But the market is very price sensitive, and if the studios treat these new products as an excuse to make a quick buck, they will both fail in a market where too many consumers think music and films should be free. That's a ridiculous expectation, of course, fed by rampant on-line music downloading. But as I've commented before, the best way to encourage sales is to make these new discs fully competitive in price with conventional DVDs. Treat them as golden geese and they'll lay lead eggs.

Video reviewed on a Yamaha DPX-1300 DLP projector, 78-inch wide Stewart Studiotek 130 screen, and Toshiba HD-A1 HD-DVD player set to 1080i. Audio reviewed using the player's digital audio output into on an Anthem D1 pre-pro, Parasound Halo amp, and Revel F52/C52/M22/B15 loudspeakers.

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