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16 Blocks

Better Than It Has Any Right To Be

Despite formulaic plot turns, an overly familiar premise and a languid, by-the-numbers climax and denouement, Richard Donner's (Conspiracy Theory, Lethal Weapon 1-4, Superman I-II, The Omen) latest effort, 16 Blocks, proves to be a tightly directed, highly engaging, suspense- and tension-filled cop thriller/urban action flick, thanks in large part to Donner's decision to film 16 Blocks in a stripped down, unobtrusive old-school style in and around grungy, rundown locations (Toronto standing in for Manhattan). Plus, with Bruce Willis and Mos Def as a mismatched duo on the run from corrupt cops, entertaining diversions are sure to follow.

Jack Mosley (Willis), a paunchy, alcoholic cop with a bad leg, razor stubble, a wicked hangover, and an all-nighter behind him, is asked at the last minute to escort a petty criminal, Eddie Bunker (Def), to appear before a grand jury 16 blocks away at the courthouse. If Eddie isn't delivered to the courthouse by 10:00 a.m., the grand jury's tenure expires, forcing an assistant district attorney to dismiss the grand jury and presumably ruining her case. Jack's the taciturn type, a man of few words, shaky morals, and an even shakier grip on his sobriety, Eddie's the motor mouth, nervously filling the air with digressions and backtalk to cover his fears and anxieties.

On their way to the courthouse, Jack pulls over at a liquor store for breakfast. Jack intervenes just as a hitman is about to shoot Eddie. Fleeing to a local bar, Jack waits for backup. Jack's ex-partner, Frank Nugent (David Morse) and his team arrive moments later. Eddie recognizes one of Frank's men, and a Mexican standoff ensues. A tense, life-altering decision later, Jack and Eddie go on the run. Along the way to their eventual destination, one or two revelations surface, forcing Jack and Eddie to trust one other.

Story wise, 16 Blocks doesn't quite overcome the unmistakable whiff of predictability or familiarity. We've seen this premise (e.g., a faded, compromised character who finds redemption through self-sacrifice) and these character types (or rather, stereotypes) before and more than once. The screenwriter, Richard Wenk, clearly borrows the central premise from The Gauntlet, a 1977 Clint Eastwood action flick (not one of his best or most memorable). Both films center on a cop escorting a witness to appear before a grand jury or trial, with a host of adversaries arrayed against them at every (plot) turn. The Gauntlet ends with a spectacular smashup. 16 Blocks doesn't go that far, but it comes close (the pileup occurs well before the climax). 16 Blocks also drops the romantic subplot found in The Gauntlet, focusing instead on the relationship between the two men, each helping to save the other.

Performance wise, Bruce Willis throws off the more heroic, hypermasculine side of his anti-authoritarian, masochistic persona, for a more worn in, disheveled character on the downside of his life (with some help from his makeup person). As Willis has reached middle age, he's become a more interesting actor to watch (seriously), taking on smaller character roles (e.g., Nobody's Fool) and more complex, shaded leading roles (e.g., Unbreakable, Twelve Monkeys). Mos Def brings his typically eccentric performance style and idiosyncratic line deliveries, channeling his inner Mike Tyson for his role as Eddie Bunker. Not surprisingly, Eddie has all the best lines and provides 16 Blocks with the humor necessary to balance the gunplay.

On the directing side, Richard Donner brings a familiar lack of pretension and restraint to an otherwise routine action/thriller. Over a career spanning six decades, Donner has proven himself a highly proficient, versatile, and generally unappreciated (at least by critics) genre filmmaker. Donner may be approaching retirement (he's 76), but with 16 Blocks he proves that the old school can still beat the new school at the filmmaking game.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars