2006, PG-13, 105 min. Directed by Richard Donner. Starring Bruce Willis, Mos Def, David Morse, Jenna Stern, Casey Sander, Cylk Cozart, Conrad Pla.
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., March 3, 2006
Richard Donner still has it. 16 Blocks may be a formulaic good-cops/bad-cops actioner, but it’s rarely stereotypical. In another director’s hands, this yarn about a battle fatigued NYPD detective (Willis, looking like the shady underside of his long-ago Moonlighting character) and the petty criminal (Mos Def) who inadvertently turns his life into a living hell might have come off laughably awful. But Donner, whose Lethal Weapon still resonates (not to mention The Goonies and the vastly underrated Radio Flyer), pulls it off with flair and zing, returning to the ever-more-gritty world of duplicitous peace officers and the demons that straddle them. When we first see Willis’ Det. Jack Mosley, he already looks three breaths away from six feet under. With slicked-back hair on the way out, a gimpy leg, and a meandering shuffle, he moves across the screen with the tortuously implacable gait of Universal’s Frankenstein monster, and you think, “It’s not alive!” But it is, barely, thanks to hourly injections not of lightning, but of scotch, bourbon, and what have you. At the end an overnight shift, he’s harangued into some hopefully quick overtime ferrying motormouth felon Eddie Bunker (a tip of the hat to Reservoir Dogs’ real-life con-turned-actor Edward Bunker, who died last year) a mere 16 blocks to his court date. As anyone who’s ever been in Manhattan can tell you, however, 16 blocks in NYC do not necessarily correspond with any distance measurable in the rest of the world. When Mosley stops off at a Korean package store for an early-morning pick-me-up, he returns just in time to foil an assassin’s attempt on Bunker, who, locked in the back seat, has been going over his plans to open a bakery in Seattle once he’s out of the system. As Mosley’s perpetually bad luck would have it, Bunker is slated to testify against a number of high-ranking NYPD police personnel in a case that could very well bring down an entire precinct. To the boys in blue, he’s worth much, much more dead than alive. And so begins Jack and Eddie’s circuitous, hair-raising sprint, dash, and dive through tenement houses and over rooftops, past dirty cops and even up against Mosley’s ex-partner of 20 years (Morse, no stranger to cop roles, but here playing against type). Donner, working from a script by Richard Wenk, has fashioned an economical cops-and-robbers vehicle that moves with all the predictability of a spoonful of mercury. Despite some disorderly backstory – an explanation for Mosley’s death’s head demeanor is offered, although it feels a tad forced and arrives far too late in the film – 16 Blocks keeps tossing out unlikely but wholly believable (in the context of the film, that is) tidbits of information about Mosley, until, by the final reel, we have a relatively complete picture of one good cop’s fall from grace … and further, which is mirrored by the arching upswing of the almost comically chatty Eddie. Mos Def, to his credit, holds his own against Willis, no small feat that. It’s still just cops and robbers, but with Donner at the helm, it feels like so much more.