There's nothing wrong with serving your audience meat and potatoes, and director Richard Donner has dished up a number of these easy-to-digest movies over his career. From Lethal Weapon to Superman, his best films successfully balanced entertainment with spectacle. There was no anguished subtext or weighty metaphor, just two hours of harmless diversion. However, his missteps (Assassins, Ladyhawke, Timeline) were bloated bores. 16 Blocks, a modest chase thriller with just enough spice to hold your attention, falls somewhere in between.
Burned-out New York City detective Jack Mosley (Bruce Willis) is asked to transport Eddie Bunker (Mos Def) to the county courthouse 16 blocks away. A last-minute witness, he must testify within two hours, before the grand jury is disbanded. Stopping at a liquor store along the way, Jack ends up foiling an assassination attempt on Eddie, who's the linchpin in a case against a cadre of dirty cops that includes Jack's former partner Frank Nugent (David Morse). With half the NYPD on his tail, Jack struggles to get Eddie to his appointment.
While there's plenty to keep you occupied in 16 Blocks, it's surprising that the director of all three Lethal Weapon movies doesn't deliver more of a raucous good time. Much of the problem is Richard Wenk's mediocre and overly sober script. He tries to twist the film's numerous clichés into something unexpected, but ends up with predictable plot twists and hard-to-swallow contrivances.
In particular, the script stumbles badly in its final act as Jack and Eddie's moral gray zone turns into saccharine-sweet redemption. Drawing things out 15 minutes too long, Wenk heaps one feel-good reversal after another, undermining the most interesting aspects of his characters.
Donner, on the other hand, is an old pro, navigating the chase scenes, humor and character drama with a sure hand. Unlike many of today's younger filmmakers, the 76-year-old director has nothing to prove. He keeps things moving and displays just enough invention to make you think you're watching a better film than you are. An early standoff between Willis and a bunch of crooked cops is expertly played for tension and menace. It's a scene that could have easily surprised in a more ambitious film. Unfortunately, given the movie's obvious conceits, its outcome is a foregone conclusion.
The cast, like the direction, is better than competent. Willis once again plays the broken-down cop with a bad attitude. He's convincingly ravaged by alcohol, conscience and age, but has little chemistry with his co-stars. It's a hackneyed role and he does little to rise above its limitations. Mos Def tries on a nasally whine as the motor-mouthed criminal with a heart of gold. Surprisingly, he makes the character work with sly nuances and charm. David Morse shines as Willis's crooked ex-partner, pouring energy and understated menace into his formulaically written villain.
16 Blocks, though hardly a white-knuckled thrill, is essentially a good-cop-vs.-bad-cop movie that delivers just a little more than you'd expect. If you stumbled across it one night on cable you might find it reasonably satisfying. Still, a $10 hamburger with fancy condiments is, in the end, just another hamburger.
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].