For the first adrenaline-spiked hour of his new action flick 16 Blocks, the filmmaker Richard Donner brings back the 1980's in high-concept style. One of the action auteurs of that often cinematically benighted decade, Donner directed all four films in the Lethal Weapon franchise (1987-1998), which was a mistake: by the time the final installment limped into theaters, its stars Mel Gibson and Danny Glover looked as exhausted as the action and dialogue. Despite the entertaining lunacy of his thriller Conspiracy Theory, Donner faltered badly in the 1990's with films like Maverick and Assassins, both of which epitomized all the worst excesses of Hollywood, including a profound lack of imagination.
If Donner's presence suggests that 16 Blocks is a throwback to the 1980's, so too does one of the names holding pride of place above the title, Bruce Willis. The sight of Willis' name may tempo-rarily inspire concern that this will be some kind of blockbuster revival, the live-action equivalent of Godzilla versus the Smog Monster, but the actor eases all worry when he shuffles into place. As Jack Mosley, a broken-down New York detective with a paunch and a sickly gray pallor, the star of the Die Hard franchise turns out to be ready to work, not sneer and wisecrack. Willis has always been an acquired taste, but for those who did acquire that taste, riding shotgun on his good times and bad, it's a pleasure to see him doing what comes naturally.
Which means holding a gun and fending off bad guys with as few words as possible. Short on words and long on action, Richard Wenk's screenplay is a compendium of familiar genre components. After one long night watching over a couple of corpses at a crime scene, Mosley is tapped to escort a prisoner, Eddie Bunker (Mos Def), to court, where he is scheduled to testify before a jury. Wenk's evident fondness for naming his characters after famous crime writers -- Bunker for Edward Bunker, Mosley for Walter Mosley -- seems to extend to a character, played by David Morse, called Frank Nugent, after the great Hollywood screenwriter. This is dangerous sport since such allusions invariably invite comparisons, but here it suggests that Wenk understands he is not breaking any new ground.
Directed by: Richard Donner
Starring: Bruce Willis (Jack Mosley), Mos Def (Eddie Bunker), David Morse (Frank Nugent), Cylk Cozart (Jimmy Mulvey), David Zayas (Robert Torres)
Running time: 105 minutes
Taiwan Release: Today
And so, over the course of a generally tight 105 minutes, Donner and Wenk revisit the interracial pairing that has been a staple of action movies since the late 1950s, when Sidney Poitier was chained to Tony Curtis and which, of course, was central to the Lethal Weapon series. They also unleash fleets of bad cops, rumpled heavies right out of a Sidney Lumet movie, and stage an enjoyably chaotic chase with a bus that tips 16 Blocks owes its largest debt to Clint Eastwood's thriller The Gauntlet. In that film, Eastwood played the tough cop while his then-lover Sondra Locke played the would-be witness, which, for those familiar with the 1977 feature, gives the pairing of Willis and Mos Def an odd frisson.
Mos Def, generally a fine actor, delivers a performance here that is at times almost as annoying as that of Locke, his voice fixed in an inexplicable nasal whine. A real motor-mouth, Bunker doesn't often shift into idle, and there are moments when his nattering seems more like the tic of a nervous screenwriter than that of a character. Happily, the two stars spend much of their time hustling and panting over packed streets, up and down staircases, through basements and across rooftops as they attempt to cover the 16 blocks that will bring them to safety and the film to a close. Until the creaky last act, Donner, whose loose shooting style intentionally (I think) creates a sense of near-vertigo, keeps them on the run -- us too.