In New York, you always hear people complain that there is never a cop around when you need one. Try telling that to burned-out New York Police Detective Jack Mosley (Bruce Willis), so dispensable that his superiors relegate him to babysitting crime scenes. With a slight limp and a legal alcohol limit constantly coursing through his veins, Mosley is among the walking dead. When he’s not passing time waiting for retirement, he’s compromising evidence looking for a drink.
So Mosley isn’t surprised when he’s requested to deliver a witness to the grand jury 16 blocks from the station, a short trip which turns into a life-and-death cat-and-mouse chase.
Efficiently directed by Richard Donner from a convenient screenplay by Richard Wenk, 16 Blocks takes audiences over familiar terrain: bad cops trying to silence the only person who can bring them down. That person would be Eddie Bunker (Mos Def), a chatterbox looking to put his minor scrapes with the law behind him in order to become a birthday-cake baker. It doesn’t take long for Eddie to gets on Jack’s nerves, or attract the attention of Jack’s former partner, Frank Nugent (David Morse), who prefers that the witness never make it to the grand jury alive.
While we’ve seen it all before, setting the events in approximate real time adds a layer of suspense. With only 16 blocks to cover in 118 minutes, Jack and Eddie must endure one close call after another, dodging bullets and bad guys. These roadblocks turn a simple ride into an extended chase, relying heavily on contrivance to move the story forward. 16 Blocks is like a large holiday parade. You sit and watch, amazed by the precision and coordination, and then feel sorry for the old man sweeping up the elephant poop.
Donner, with his Lethal Weapon franchise, and Willis, with his Die Hard franchise, deserve better than sweeping up after this white elephant. Willis is at the right point in his career to play the burned-out, alcoholic cop, layering Jack with as much conviction as he can muster. It’s a distilled performance, filtered through every buddy cop movie committed to celluloid. Most of the time, Willis just goes through the motions. Mos Def fares better, punching Jack’s buttons with annoying patter and then winning him over with sincerity.
16 Blocks, like Speed, pumps up the action to cover lapses in logic. The minute you stop and think about any of this, it all falls apart. In the moment, 16 Blocks is a decent ride.