Director: Richard Donner
Starring: Bruce Willis, Mos Def, David Morse
Rated PG-13 for violence, intense sequences of action and strong language
On the day that Bruce Willis receives his inevitable lifetime achievement award from the Academy, 16 Blocks won’t be included in the highlight reel. That’s a shame, because the film very nearly works as a character study interrupted by a few action sequences. Instead, director Richard Donner settles for a routine action flick bookended by a few poignant character moments.
Willis plays Detective Jack Mosely, another variation of the broken-down cop character he’s perfected over countless other films. This time he’s an unapologetic alcoholic with a bum leg and a silly-looking cop-stache who shuffles around the precinct, grunting at colleagues and marking time until retirement.
One morning Mosely is assigned to escort a key witness (Mos Def) to the courthouse. It’s a simple assignment, he’s got two hours to go 16 blocks. Unfortunately for Mosely, he looks a lot like Bruce Willis, and that means things are going to get very noisy very quickly. It turns out the witness, Eddie Bunker, has dirt on a bunch of cops, and they’d all feel better if he died before giving his testimony. Cue the ambushes, shoot-outs, bus chases and intense looks of incredulity from Willis.
The first act, which sets up Mosely’s character and predicament, is nicely handled. Willis’ enduring popularity as an action star is his ability to project that “everyman” persona; no matter how many times we see him perform Herculean feats of improbable justice, we always believe that this is the first time anything like this has ever happened to him. It’s an undervalued quality in action flicks, and Willis’ knack for it is unmatched. As the simple assignment goes awry, Mosely digs down and reawakens the old cop who once believed in truth, justice and the American way. His face takes on that look of irrepressible determination, and we in the audience feel a familiar comfort.
In the second act, however, the film stumbles. Donner, a veteran action director, knows how to compose a thrilling chase sequence, but that in and of itself is not enough to buoy an entire act. Bickering and bonding, Mosely and Bunker race through seedy bars, dark alleyways and crummy apartment buildings as they try to elude the bloodthirsty cops. Bunker talks a mile a minute and Mosely responds with monosyllabic grunts, and we’re reminded of every other mismatched buddy shoot-em-up since Lethal Weapon, which Donner also directed. Mos Def uses the inherent comedy of their incompatibility to generate some easy laughs, but the urgent nature of their situation prevents the characters from becoming anything more than rough sketches.
And then, in the third act, a funny thing happens. The pedal-to-the-metal pace suddenly subsides, and you can practically hear the gears grinding as the story downshifts from big, overblown actioner to gripping, emotional drama. It’s an admirable twist on the genre, and it even plays well, with both Willis and Def rising to the occasion, but unfortunately it’s too little, too late. The film hasn’t earned its thoughtful resolution, and the powerful climax that could have been is only barely glimpsed.
Mos Def can’t yet open a picture by himself, but it won’t be long. He’s a charismatic actor who brings life and love to a very thin character here. After a silly but likeable turn in The Italian Job, he brought mesmerizing power to his small part in The Woodsman, easily holding his own against Kevin Bacon. 16 Blocks is his most prominent role to date, and should catch him some juicier parts.
David Morse is serviceable in the role of Mosely’s cold-blooded former partner who leads the band of dirty cops. We immediately know that he’s a sleazy guy, because he chews gum with his mouth open, which makes him detestable on principle alone.
Bruce Willis is reportedly working on a fourth Die Hard picture. At 51, he can’t have too many more of these blazing action movies in him, so one can only hope that he goes out on a high note. 16 Blocks is just too disparate to be it.