16 Blocks

Bruce Willis, Mos Def, David Morse, and Jenna Stern star
in a film written by Richard Wenk and directed by Richard

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. ■


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