Going the distance: '16 Blocks' is a long way
Have you heard the one about the old drunk who finds redemption? If you haven't heard it, you've surely seen the movie. It's a Hollywood staple that often scores Oscar nominations for actors of middle age and older.
You'll see it again in 16 Blocks, and you'll like it. Director Richard Donner and screenwriter Richard Wenk weave a sermon into a dramatic context in a way Tyler Perry would envy. This suspense thriller can change the lives of people whose lives need changing, while effectively serving as pure entertainment for those of us who are already perfect.
Also recycled is the plot of last week's Running Scared, about a bad guy up against worse guys. At first Jack Mosley (Bruce Willis) seems like one of the least fine of New York's finest. With a drinking problem ("He's been to The Farm twice in the last four years") and a gimpy leg, he's given crappy jobs like baby-sitting corpses at crime scenes.
After we meet a few more cops, we realize Jack isn't that bad. As his shift ends at 8am, his boss gives him an overtime assignment: "It's a nothing thing– 118 minutes to get a little hemorrhoid 16 blocks." Specifically, he's to deliver Eddie Bunker (Mos Def), an eyewitness, to a grand jury in the courthouse 16 blocks from the precinct by 10am.
No one tells Jack how desperate some people are to keep Eddie from testifying, or that those people are also cops. One of them, Frank Nugent (David Morse) was Jack's partner for 20 years.
Our first sign that Jack is down but not out comes when he shows his shaky hand can still shoot straight at the first attempt on Eddie's life. The staging makes this scene one of Donner's classics.
Moments later the situation is clarified when Nugent and his posse try to relieve Jack of his burden and Jack doesn't let them. It's the first of many showdowns and shootouts that grow increasingly exciting and ridiculous as– I guess we can call them "our heroes" now– move from one impossible situation to another. Once Jack has shot two cops, everyone else on the force is ready to shoot him on sight, no questions asked.
You've probably recognized the story as Midnight Run in the daytime, and played a bit more seriously. Eddie is trying to change his life. A career criminal, he wants to move to Seattle to open a bakery. Jack, even as he's changing before our eyes, insists people can't change; it becomes a running debate between them.
Mos Def continues to impress with his versatility, from his serious acting in Something the Lord Made, to his rapping in his other new movie, Dave Chappelle's Block Party, to his moving seriocomic performance here in a role Chris Tucker would have taken too far over the top for anyone to care about him. A nonstop chatterbox, Eddie is annoying for the longest time, but by the end you want to take him home as a pet.
Willis gives his usual solid performance; he's a rock on which more movies have been built than anyone realizes.
As for director Donner, he redeems himself for Timeline and shows that at 75 he's still in peak form.