Where the hell has Richard Donner been? The guy who gave us one of the most definitive superhero movies of all time in 1978 (“Superman”) has had, to put it charitably, a spotty career record since the days of disco. The high points (“Lethal Weapon 2,” “Scrooged”) have been few and far between while the lows (“The Toy,” “Goonies,” Maverick,” freaking “Timeline”) have been more and more frequent. 2003’s “Timeline” was actually his last directorial effort, before that you have to go back to 1998, for the uninspiring 4th installment in the “Lethal Weapon” franchise.
Bruce Willis’ output has been more voluminous since his respective peak in the late ‘80s/early ‘90s, but the results are the same; few peaks (“Sin City,” “Twelve Monkeys”) and far too many valleys, including “Armageddon,” a movie so diabolically repulsive everyone involved should be imprisoned in the same Supermax facility as Ted Kaczynski.
Happily, “16 Blocks” is a bit of a return to form for both men. Willis plays Jack Mosley, the personification of the burnt-out cop. Unlike Martin Riggs, his logical predecessor from another Donner movie, Mosley isn’t content with a mere wake-up beer. This guy is a full-time drunk, the kind everyone in the precinct already knows about, assigning him easy babysitting duties in the hopes he’ll retire soon and just go away.
This works to his disadvantage on this particular day, as his lieutenant tasks him with taking grand jury witness Eddie Bunker (Mos Def) from the jail to the courthouse so he can give his testimony. Violating what one assumes are several departmental regulations, Mosley stops off at the local liquor store on the way, emerging just in time to thwart two hitmen trying to scrag Eddie right there in his car. As it turns out, Eddie’s testimony pertains to police corruption, and Mosley’s brother officers are quite eager to keep the small-time crook and wannabe baker from making it to his destination.
Sounds a hell of a lot like “The Gauntlet,” though I’d wager Mos Def is cuter than Sondra Locke. In these uncertain economic times, the producers also had to shorten the distance from the 300 or so miles Las Vegas to Phoenix to the roughly 2 miles from Mosley’s precinct to Center St. Both leads do an admirable job, Willis takes the ragged edge to new lows, all bloodshot eyes and unhealthy pallor. There won’t be any last-second pugilistic heroics from this cop, who totters through the movie on a bad leg while sporting the beginnings of a nice gut. The character of Eddie comes dangerously close to annoying the crap out us, and it’s to Mos Def’s credit that he keeps him sympathetic. The two have an unlikely chemistry, but one that doesn’t slip into the usual “buddy” clichés.
I could’ve done without the ending wrapping up as neatly as it did, but for what it is, “16 Blocks” isn’t all that bad a movie. Thanks to a compact story and some economical direction, it actually ends up better than it has any right to be. Not to say it’s a great film, but given what we’ve had to put up with so far this year, I’ll take what I can get.