New York City detective Jack Mosley (Bruce Willis) has been up too late—a few years past his bedtime by the look of it. His complexion is just this side of corpse gray; his voice seeps out in a gravelly grumble; and when he walks, it's as though gravity were pulling down on him twice as hard as the rest of the human race—he's a bedraggled Sisyphus pushing an invisible boulder. Somewhere, buried in the stacks of disorganized files and unreturned phone memos on his desk, might just be the past 20 years of his life. But for now, all Jack wants to do is go home, refill his flask and try to sleep some time away. But such is not meant to be. As Jack is on his way out the precinct door this particular morning, after pulling a particularly grueling late shift, his lieutenant orders him to do one last thing before he clocks off: transport a convict from the station's lockup to a nearby courthouse, where he's due to give important testimony before a grand jury in two hours' time.
Well, as you might guess about a movie called 16 Blocks, that seemingly simple errand proves much easier said than done. Jack's ward turns out to be Eddie Bunker (Mos Def), a jittery, hyperverbal petty thief-turned-informant who's got the goods on some no-good cops, including Jack's own former partner (an insidious David Morse), who will stop at nothing to make sure Eddie doesn't make it to the courthouse on time. Or ever. And while Jack, who we suspect may not be exactly squeaky-clean himself, could just fork Eddie over to New York's less-than-finest and be done with it, much to everyone's surprise—not least his own—he doesn't. From there, Jack and Eddie are on the run and, in its early scenes, as Jack tries to pin down whether the chaos erupting around him is really happening or just a really bad case of the DTs, 16 Blocks exudes a wonderful sense of drunken fatigue, as if the movie (like Jack) has lost touch with its senses and is only gradually getting them back. The camera whips about, startled by the slightest stimuli. Innocent passers-by take on menacing countenances. New York starts to look an awful lot like Toronto.
This is some of the best filmmaking ever done by director Richard Donner, a longtime Hollywood journeyman known more for his proficient deployment of four long-running movie franchises (The Omen, Superman, Lethal Weapon and—lest we forget—Free Willy) than for his lyricism. That doesn't mean that Donner has suddenly become the go-to guy for a Proust adaptation, but after his last picture—the stillborn, Michael Crichton-derived sci-fi opus Timeline—he's back on surer footing with 16 Blocks, staging efficient, unpretentious bouts of action and taking unconcealed pleasure in subverting the conventions of a genre nearly as tired as Jack Mosley himself: the cop-buddy movie. Eventually, Jack starts sobering up, and so does the movie, settling into the rhythms of a more conventional cat-and-mouse pursuit. But even then, Donner and screenwriter Richard Wenk (best known for that 1980s cult item Vamp) keep lobbing us curve balls. For starters, consider that 16 Blocks unfolds more or less in real time, but does almost nothing to remind us from moment to moment of how much time is left, as if Willis and Def are on top of a ticking time bomb and Donner forgot to include insert shots of the countdown clock. That might seem a failing, until you further consider that this is a drama about police corruption in which one of the main characters (I won't say who) yearns to move to Seattle and open a bakery—and in which the end credits play over Barry White's spirited rendition of "Can't Get Enough of Your Love, Babe." All of which is to say that 16 Blocks is less interested in wind-up thrills than in telling an optimist's fable about two men who've come to the end of something and find in each other the inspiration to begin anew.
I'm not suggesting that any of that makes for a novel, or especially profound, night at the movies, but 16 Blocks is spirited and, dare I say, even charming in ways you don't have any reason to expect going in. Like Donner's Lethal Weapon pictures, it aspires to a blend of hard action, light comedy and pathos, but here the feelings are deeper, the characters are richer and the entire approach is markedly less cloying.
Somewhere in the notes I took during the screening, I wrote: Mos Def is Rain Man, and it's true that his performance walks a fine line between inspired eccentricity and actorly grandstanding. Still, much like the movie itself, he won me over—he gives 16 Blocks its eccentric soul. It's Willis, though, who's hard to take your eyes off of. Now 50, and looking every minute of it, he's allowed himself to grow older honestly on screen, realizing that each new wrinkle and sag is an actor's ally, not his enemy. If he keeps this up, in a few years he could be Nick Nolte or Jeff Bridges, or even Bill Murray. Behold, the American cinema's next master of weary repose.
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16 BLOCKS WAS DIRECTED BY RICHARD DONNER; WRITTEN BY RICHARD WENK; PRODUCED BY JIM VAN WYCK, JOHN THOMPSON, ARNOLD RIFKIN, AVI LERNER AND RANDALL EMMETT. NOW PLAYING COUNTYWIDE.