Bruce Willis, Mos Def, David Morse, and Jenna Stern star in a film written by Richard Wenk and directed by Richard Donner.
An entertaining-enough action flick for Hollywood’s bland days of late winter, 16 Blocks is structured like an elaborate math problem. Specific plot coordinates give the film its narrative structure: as the promo teaser says, we’ve got “one witness, 118 minutes, and 16 blocks of N.Y.C. to navigate.” Add to the equation one bad cop going virtuous (Bruce Willis), who pulls superhuman stunts to get his witness (Mos Def) to the grand jury on time. Even in morning rush-hour traffic in Manhattan, that shouldn’t be a problem, except that a gun-toting cabal of über-bad cops (led by suavely villainous David Morse) is eager to kill said witness, lest his testimony would expose a nasty ring of police corruption.
Director Richard Donner is comfortable — maybe too comfortable — in the cross-racial, unlikely buddy movie genre, having guided Mel Gibson and Danny Glover through the Lethal Weapon franchise of urban cops-and-robbers flicks. This time around, the buddies are not eager, good-guy cops, but flawed men trying to reel themselves in from legal fringes. Def’s character, a mumbly chatterbox who gives the film needed comic and humanistic relief, is an ex-con dreaming of opening a bakery in Seattle, specializing in “burfday cakes.”
Willis, the veteran macho man in the similarly pressurized Die Hard films and the semi-animated tough guy in Sin City, is older, less wise, puffier, and soggier with booze in this role. We sense that he’s using this cathartic walking tour of N.Y.C. as a way of chasing down the possibility of redemption, after years of sinking into a haze of alcoholic and police department venality.
The film often seems hackneyed, propped up on cheap feel-good sentiments and freely stealing old ideas — a patch of the bus-hostage angle of Speed here, a piece of the time-bomb tension of Phone Booth there. A certain TV-style vapidity hovers over the movie, in the way it glibly navigates implausible plot points and ties up loose ends in time for commercials. Despite its shortcomings and half-measures, though, 16 Blocks keeps our attentions and affections up, and the adrenaline glands in good order for about 106 minutes. ■