By Jeffrey M. Anderson
Bruce Willis appears, in 16 Blocks, as the exhausted New York City cop Jack Mosley. Paunchy and pallid, he wobbles around on a bad leg and occasionally stops to swig down whatever room-temperature booze he can lay his hands on. He's ashen, sweaty and rumpled and he looks like he's just about to throw in the towel.
Jack makes a great character for a movie, but one must wonder, while watching 16 Blocks, if Jack isn't also a representation of the film's director, Richard Donner?
Donner broke into showbiz nearly 50 years ago, directing TV shows ranging from "The Twilight Zone" and "The Fugitive" to "Gilligan's Island" and "The Streets of San Francisco." In-between came a few TV movies and pilots, as well as a few forgotten feature films.
He hit the big time with The Omen (1976) and followed that with Superman (1978). It's clear that while those two movies had little in common stylistically -- and that no one would ever confuse them with art -- they were both slick, well-crafted entertainments.
Donner continued, willy-nilly, arbitrarily hitting (Inside Moves, The Goonies, Lethal Weapon 1-2, Scrooged, Conspiracy Theory) and missing (The Toy, Radio Flyer, Lethal Weapon 3, Lethal Weapon 4, Maverick, Assassins).
In 2003, he seemed to have found a stride, and something resembling a signature style, with his sci-fi action film Timeline. In an increasingly sloppy movie landscape plagued with video-game adaptations and short-attention-span filmmakers, here was a director who could turn in a clean, well-oiled adventure with a sense of childlike thrill.
The new 16 Blocks shows Donner slipping again. Like our Jack Mosley character, he has perhaps grown lazy and tired, and has conceded, adopting the current trend of sloppy, shaky action filmmaking.
Still, for two-thirds at least, 16 Blocks is uncomplicated and unpretentious. Donner's childlike essence, his untarnished enjoyment of storytelling, is intact.
After an all-nighter on the job, Mosley is given a seemingly simple task: to transport an eyewitness, Eddie Bunker (Mos Def) from jail to the courthouse 16 blocks away.
It turns out that Eddie -- perhaps not coincidentally named after the famous prisoner-turned-writer (Straight Time) and actor (Reservoir Dogs) -- has fingered six dirty cops and plans to testify against them in court.
Of course, there's a time limit. Embarking at just after 8 a.m., Eddie and Jack must arrive before the jury's tenure winds up, at 10 a.m. That's just about the time it takes for a movie to unfurl, but Donner mostly ignores this "real-time" gimmick.
The problem is that half of New York's finest intend to stop Eddie from reaching the courthouse, even if it means taking Jack down with him.
Donner exerts just enough effort to get this job done, but not enough to achieve anything close to excellence. For example, in other "limited space" scenarios of this sort (Die Hard, Phone Booth, etc.), the stories seem to exhaust each and every possibility before concluding.
16 Blocks doesn't particularly use its space to any unique advantage. Jack and Eddie escape through stairwells, rooftops and random apartments without any rhyme or reason.
Donner's visual approach utilizes mostly hand-held cinematography and quick cutting. Decades ago, in the hands of Stanley Kubrick and William Friedkin, this method suggested a change from stillness to chaos. Now it's just a trend, and it's rarely employed in a way that viewers can even see, much less enjoy.
That leaves Jack and Eddie's camaraderie and chemistry to carry the film. Mos Def is a superb performer, slightly off-kilter and almost always unpredictable. (See how much he does with very little in 2004's The Woodsman.) Here, he adopts a kind of whiny, slurring mumble, and while he's occasionally funny and sometimes sweet, it's too much to ever jell into a real character.
Willis seems to be aware that he's ripping off his own hit Die Hard franchise, which may explain why he has morphed into a tired, beleaguered has-been like Jack. It's about as far away as one can get from the cocky John McClane.
If their friendship works at all, it's because of the clever casting of David Morse (The Green Mile) as the third point in the triangle. Frank Nugent, Jack's ex-partner of 20 years, could have been a standard movie villain, but the gentle, likeable -- and yet surprisingly crafty -- Morse gives him a soul.
Morse tries to win back his old friend by using their history, and tries to play him against the career criminal Eddie, who keeps talking about the bakery he'll open if he ever gets out of this fix alive.
And thus brings us to the movie's third act, which sinks into an ancient collection of stale chestnuts and "surprise" twists.
Donner's tone reveals him to be unperturbed by these elements. After all, doesn't the joy of storytelling come with repetition? Maybe, if the repetition reveals something unique. But 16 Blocks comes to such a clumsy close that it makes you wonder if the trip was ever worth it.