An aging cop’s last chance to redeem his soured existence provides the sturdy frame for “16 Blocks,” a movie by Richard Donner that’s closer to a compact film noir than to the many gimmicky entertainments of the vet director’s past. Told mostly in real time, pic sticks to its guns as a spare account of how a routine transport of a witness to a courtroom turns into a chaotic cat-and-mouse chase, with police criminality at its core. Dramatic strength of Bruce Willis playing a worn-out cop will present commercial challenges in snaring a youth-oriented opening weekend crowd, but vid should pick up the slack.
Not that it ever rises to the level of Sidney Lumet’s Gotham police pics (“Serpico,” “Prince of the City”), but “16 Blocks” does raise the banner for the tradition of the textured urban cop drama, spurred by action but made substantial by characters at crossroads. Almost as a dare to auds fed on non-stop movement and thrills, Donner (with key ace collaboration from editor Steven Mirkovich) intros tale in a slow, steady rhythm, cued to the pace of fatigued cop Jack Mosley (Willis).
Lumbering up a flight of stairs, slumping into a sofa or considering another swig of hooch, Willis’ Jack is palpably a man who’s tired of life, let alone his beat on the New York force. Opening scene of Jack waiting at the crime scene for detectives has nothing to do with the central story, and everything to do with setting the mood of Jack’s bedraggled existence.
Back at the office, though, Jack is asked to transport Eddie Bunker (Mos Def), in jail for a petty crime but ready to testify in a trial, to the downtown courtroom by 10 a.m. With roughly 90 minutes’ lead time, Jack starts driving Eddie the 16 blocks between the police station and the court. It’s not long before Jack is up to here with Eddie’s non-stop chatter and with the street traffic, so he pulls over to buy some booze in a liquor store.
Pic swivels on its axis at this point, as Jack leaves the store and shoots a suspicious man trying to make Eddie roll down the back seat window of the car. Eluding more gunfire, Jack takes Eddie to his favorite Mulberry Street bar and calls for backup, only to find his 20-year-long partner Frank Nugent (David Morse) arrive with some fellow detectives.
Rather than help get Eddie to the court though, Frank intends to have Eddie — a witness to bloody acts by some of New York’s finest — executed to stop him from testifying against him and several other colleagues.
His conscience clicking into gear, Jack shoots some of his own to free Eddie, setting off the chase’s checkered flag. Although the script of “16 Blocks” can be broken down as merely a set of action pieces in which Jack and Eddie flee Frank, get cornered and flee again, Richard Wenk’s screenplay is fundamentally about something else: A seemingly hollowed-out man, eaten away inside by his own moral rot, is allowed to become a reluctant hero who can set things right.
Frequently, reminders surface of such finely crafted Gotham thrillers as “The Taking of Pelham One Two Three,” especially in Wenk’s balancing of the realities of city life with plentiful humorous inserts and Donner’s commitment to driving the film constantly forward but within the bounds of logic. One aspect that detracts from the overall effect is the decision to have Def’s Eddie not just blabber on without an internal pause button, but often behave dangerously close to the stereotype of the dim, shuffling black man out of Hollywood’s sorry past.
Despite this notable problem, Def is nevertheless charming, though his projection of innocence (Eddie’s humble dream is to open his own bakery) seems a calculated contrast with the nefarious and heartless white cop played with characteristic focus and intensity by the highly reliable Morse. Measured by sheer amount of dialogue, Def’s role is infinitely larger than Willis’, but Willis–who was once the chief yakker in his movies and TV shows–finds real nobility and depth of purpose with a character for whom every word (the fewer, the better) counts.
Toronto visibly subs for New York during much of the chase, the only technical flaw in an otherwise ultra-pro production. Glen Macpherson’s widescreen lensing and desaturated color scheme are exceptionally devised, and Klaus Badelt, once known for musical bombast, delivers one of his most muted and understated scores. Producer counters will note the 16 individuals so credited here.