16 Blocks is a movie trying very hard to be nothing like we expect it to be. The effort is admirable, but in a story like this there are only so many places to go, unless of course you’re willing to piss off the audience. Director Richard Donner (perhaps wisely) isn’t, and so settles in for an intimate little chase thriller that’s just far enough from the norm to hang on to your attention but not different enough to be considered a genre revelation.
The film stars Bruce Willis, in the kind of role he knows well. Bruce plays Jack Mosely, a burned out cop with an alcohol problem, a potbelly, and a pronounced limp. Jack enters the film with a defeated sigh. Huffing, puffing, and sweating he lurches into a crime scene where he’s supposed to stand guard, swipes a bottle of booze from a cabinet and plops down on the victim’s couch to get drunk and read the paper. Jack Mosely may still be on the job, but he retired a long time ago.
Jack lumbers back to the station to punch out. He’s been on duty all night, so add a whole lot of tired to his blistering hangover. Before he can leave, his Lieutenant gives him a quick job to do: pick up a prisoner and escort him to the courthouse 16 blocks away. The prisoner’s name is Eddie Bunker (Mos Def), and Eddie has to be to court in exactly 118 minutes. With a sigh, Jack cuffs Eddie, throws him in his squad car, and starts winding his way through New York City traffic. Eddie has diarrhea of the mouth, and chatters incessantly. Already beaten down, Jack can’t take another minute of his blathering, and so with a weary groan he pulls over the car at a liquor store to purchase a pick-me-up. That’s when things go horribly wrong.
Suddenly Jack finds himself in a shootout over Eddie, and then being hunted by other cops. His fellow officers (many of whom are his friends) want Eddie dead. Eddie’s testifying at the trial of a crooked cop, and his testimony could take down an entire ring of corrupt policemen. Unable to call in backup, since the backup will probably shoot him, Jack and Eddie hobble through the streets of New York under fire and on the run. Their only hope is to make it to the courthouse in time for Eddie to give his testimony.
Willis is nothing short of genius as Eddie, and the movie never abandons the basic, loser nature of his character in favor of high paced action. Jack plods through the streets of New York, every bit as tired at the end of the movie as when he started. There are no miraculous roof jumps or sudden moments of athletic prowess. Jack is a guy who really ought to give it up. He’s a veteran, and once upon a time probably smart. For awhile that’s enough to keep them alive, but Jack is barely capable and does a lot of wheezing, so he makes a lot of the stupid mistakes you’d expect from a washed up drunk with a badge and a gun.
Mos Def continues his impressive string of performances. Those of you smart enough to catch Hitchhiker’s Guide in theaters last year probably remember his take on Ford Prefect, but Mos Def was even more impressive as a bitter cop in the uncomfortable 2003 child molester drama The Woodsman. He’s even better here, as he nails the sleazy but lovable character of Eddie with an easy air of natural energy. It’s more than a funny talk or a weird set of gimmicks. Mos picks up the mannerisms and personality of a lovable sneak as he slinks around the city behind Jack stealing scenes and looking out mostly for himself.
But the real delight in 16 Blocks is to see Richard Donner back directing good movies again. Maybe it simply took him this long to find the right script, or maybe he needed better actors. His last film did after all star Paul Walker. Whatever the reason, Donner is back in form as he guides the film through the twists and turns of Richard Wenk’s script. Tension and character drama intertwine in a sharp action story smart enough to stay taut and intimate when other movies might have been tempted instead to go for a big, empty explosion.
The movie’s not perfect however. In the final acts it loses some of the grey area that made it so interesting and gets too caught up in the idea of two men, a cynic and an eternal optimist colliding and changing each other for the better. Jack’s redemption is too unexpected as he stops gut-reacting and suddenly starts thinking. But as I mentioned earlier, 16 Blocks isn’t out to redefine the genre by overly challenging its audience. What it does do, it does really well. Donner delivers a strong action movie with a vicious punch and well defined, interesting characters capable of throwing the audience a bit of the unexpected now and again. For a film that’s basically another cop versus cop movie, that’s pretty damned good.