The first shot of Bruce Willis as a pot-bellied, pasty-faced career cop limping his way up a flight of stairs brands 16 Blocks as one of his "serious" vehicles. For long stretches of the film, Willis does a creditable job portraying the washed-up, self-loathing, and seriously alcoholic Jack Mosley, a New York City police detective reduced to mop-up duties while waiting for his pension to kick in. Jack's drab clothes and shuffling gait mark him as a civil service drone, but his haggard eyes are a sign of a deep-rooted malaise.
Assigned to transport petty crook Eddie Bunker (Mos Def) from his cell to a grand jury investigation, Jack learns that he's being set up by a ring of crooked cops intent on killing Eddie before he testifies. It's a concept that's been used in film many times before, notably by Clint Eastwood in The Gauntlet, and it's gratifying to see director Richard Donner approach it seriously. 16 Blocks builds a persuasive world of corrupt cops, hidden vice, and desperate scrambling, and sustains that vision for longer than you'd expect.
Still, no one seems sure what to do with the plot, simple as it is. The crooked cops are led by Frank Nugent (David Morse), once Jack's partner. When Jack and Eddie go on the run, Nugent and his men blanket the neighborhood, cutting off access to the courtroom where Eddie must testify. The chase leads into the subway, through Chinatown sweatshops, and finally onto a city bus that is quickly surrounded by snipers.
Donner plays down the violence at first, and with Willis underplaying as well, that leaves a lot of screen time for the sturdy, effective Morse and for Mos Def, who has been quietly building some impressive credits. Here his version of a petty crook essentially updates Stepin Fetchit, a move that is either courageous or appalling, depending on your outlook. Def drops an occasional gem (like "I'm going to make you eat your words and lick your fingers"), but can't really solve a role that's built on clichés.
Willis and Donner have made movies like this so many times before that they tend to fall back on whatever they feel worked earlier. Willis is bracing until he goes all soft and sentimental, as he inevitably does these days. Donner's typically strong visuals work well setting up the story, but not when it comes time to explain the characters. Still, 16 Blocks could have been a lot worse, and is almost always better than it has to be. It gains points by examining crooked cops at all, but loses just as many by suggesting that police corruption can be cured with a couple of shoot-outs and car chases.
Cast and crew
Cast: Bruce Willis, Mos Def, David Morse, Cylk Cozart, David Zayas, Casey Sander, Jenna Stern, Cylk Cozart, Robert Racki, Richard Fitzpatrick, Peter McRobbie, Patrick Garrow, Sasha Roiz, Conrad Pla, Hechter Ubarry, Mike Keenan.
Credits: Directed by Richard Donner. Written by Richard Wenk. Produced by Avi Lerner, Randall Emmett, John Thompson, Arnold Rifkin, Jim Van Wyck. Executive producers: Danny Dimbort, Trevor Short, Boaz Davidson, George Furla, Hadeel Reda, Andreas Thiesmeyer, Josef Lautenschlager. Director of photography: Glen MacPherson. Production designer: Arv Greywal. Edited by Steven Mirkovich. Costume designer: Vicki Graef. Music by Klaus Badelt. Music supervisor: Ashley Miller. An Alcon Entertainment and Millennium Films presentation of an Emmett/Furla Films and Cheyenne Enterprises production, for Equity Pictures Medienfonds GmbH & Co. KG III & Nu Image Entertainment GmbH.