When director Richard Donner (Lethal Weapon, Superman) puts his mind to it he can craft some darn slick action films. In 16 Blocks he offers his typical cross of action, humor and violence. Here he sticks broken down, alcoholic NY cop Jack Mosley (a terribly out of shape but fit for the part Bruce Willis) who’s nearing the end of his rope in a supposedly cake walk situation. Mosley simply needs to transfer petty thief Eddie Bunker (Mos Def) to the city courthouse a mere 16 blocks away.
You know what they say – so near yet so far. With Willis in the pic, it’s hard not to think about his original Die Hard situation where’s he caught in confined area except he’s not trying to get out but instead he’s attempting to get Bunker over, across, through the jam packed Manhattan streets and into the courthouse. Both Willis cop characters would rather be anyplace else but unlike the smart ass, joke cracking John McClane in Die Hard, Mosley hardly cracks a smile. The fact that the ones trying to kill the witness aren’t normal criminals, or hit men but dirty cops. Bunker represents the key witness against these police who bend the rules too much. This added complexity adds more to the good cop bad cop routine.
Donner apparently snatched writer Richard Wenk from another project to pen this piece, which could have been just another cat and mouse action flick. But they keep this taught thriller going with catchy dialogue, smart situations and characters with more depth that your run of the mill police thriller. It doesn’t hurt that Mos Def turns in another sharp performance. At first, his odd persona, not to mention voice (which seems like something from one of the Wayans brothers’ characters in the old “In Living Color” TV show). Most any other actor planning this part might have been laughable but Def makes it believable, and funny in the right spots.
The film stays smart most of the way (the cops even shoot the tires to stop a moving vehicle) with only a few hiccups. It manages to neatly space the running theme of change and redemption. It’s not until the last 15 minutes or so when these themes bubble up too fast and with too much gusto. With the film packed with ideas of recovery and the ability to transform, 16 Blocks has, for now, redeemed at least some faith that smart, Hollywood action pix aren’t dead.