Think of 16 BLOCKS as Bruce Willis’ transition film. It’s as though now that he is gamely moving towards his golden years, he is also gamely moving beyond the action films that filled his cinematic oeuvre and bedeviled those who had to endure them when he kept making them even after they had reached the pinnacle 15 years ago. He’s not quite ready to let the old persona go, but here, as New York City detective Jack Mosely, he shares with the camera such things as a nascent gut inching delicately over his belt.
Jack is on his last legs. Literally. He’s a shambling, shuffling shell with a bad leg, a penchant for hard liquor, and a conscience that checked out years before. He’s the guy on the squad who can always be spared when the real work needs doing by others. After an all night duty call, which was helped along by a generous amount of alcohol, he catches one last assignment on his way out into the morning of a new day. Sounds easy. Take Eddie (Mos Def), a small-time crook, from the lockup across the eponymous distance to the court house where he is scheduled to be the star witness before the grand jury. There are a few catches, of course. The case is against some dirty cops. They’ve been tipped off. And Jack knows nothing about this. When he makes an unauthorized stop for his morning bottle of tipple, everything falls apart as the dirty cops try to take out Eddie, and Jack suddenly decides to do the right thing.
We know that’s his motive because the film opens with him saying just that into a tape recorder. It’s one of the lesser moments in a workmanlike script by Richard Wenk that uses one too many of those foreshadowing moments, manages to throw in some sleight-of-hand with the audience that almost isn’t obvious, but, on the plus side, resorts to far fewer of the clichés usually to be found in action/ redemption stories. Things such as moving the action to Chinatown as Jack goes on the run from his ex-partner (baby-faced David Morse not being quite gritty enough), who, in the tradition of run-of-the-mill twists, becomes his chief nemesis. There is also the requisite bus crash. Guns blaze, Jack finds enough brain cells to stay two steps (but never more) ahead of the bad cops and to engage in verbal banter between rounds of gunplay with his ex-partner that isn’t as stale as it could have been.
So far, so-so. It was on the way to being a slight effort that neither particularly offends nor particularly endears, though it does spend its last, benighted 20 minutes of running time attempting to do the latter with an instance that is annoying in a cloying sort of way. Instead of leaving sort-of-good-enough alone, though, someone decided to tack on a last act that completely undoes what went before. Violating the rules it set up for itself, things spin into the fantastical and really far-fetched. You can almost see the cut-and-paste where the egos that be decided to shake things up for the sake of a punch line and one too many larger-than-life moments of macho posturing on screen.
That’s bad enough, but it’s at this point that Willis decides to go from a serviceable cynical distance to attempting to emote. In selected cases, he can be very good when attempting this. PULP FICTION and last year’s SIN CITY, where the directors, Tarantino and Rodriguez respectively, went with less is more in the midst of their glorious excess. This is not the case here, where Willis and director Richard Donner, have confused mawkish with evocative. As for Def, a charismatic performer of the first order, he is here reduced to the McGuffin and little else aside from a stream-of-consciousness monologue about baking cakes rendered in a nasal drone of a singularly monotonous type.
16 BLOCKS would have played nicely as a little film with modest aspirations. As it is, it takes its premise and runs it straight into the ground with an insouciant gusto.