It’s just about eight in the morning, and the worst cop in the world needs a drink. Instead of a drink, the lieutenant gives him a job: at some point over the next 118 minutes, get this witness 16 blocks downtown to 100 Centre Street so he can give testimony before a grand jury. The witness is a talker, with a whiney voice; way too early for this. Traffic is bad, though, so the cop nips into a liquor store while they’re on the way. While he’s in the store, two hitmen try to kill the witness. Cop drops his brown-bag bottle of Canadian Club, plugs one of the hitmen, hightails it with the witness to a friendly nearby bar, where his backup finds him and announces, sorry, but we’ve got to kill the witness anyway, he’s going to testify against a bunch of us police. Cop decides for once to side with his conscience and takes off again with the witness, only now the streets between them and the courthouse are filled with NYPD who want to take them both out.
As a short story in some pulp magazine of a sadly bygone era, 16 Blocks would be a dirty little gem. Crooked cops, lots of twists and turns, some tough-guy badinage spit out on the knife’s edge. In the hands of Richard “Lethal Weapon” Donner, however, it morphs into a strange and weak buddy flick that mixes 48 Hrs., Die Hard: With a Vengeance, and about a dozen other cop movies together in a desperate attempt to seem vital and gritty. The result is something more than a complete failure (unlike, say, Donner’s last one, Timeline) but something quite a bit less than good. Article continues below
The best thing Donner has going for him here is his crackerjack cast. As the brokedown cop Jack Mosley, Bruce Willis is paunchy, balding, and deflated-looking; even his mustache looks sick of it all. Hunkered over his desk in the bowels of some downtown Manhattan precinct, desperate for a drink, all his fellow cops looking the other way as he assiduously avoids anything resembling work, he’s the very picture of the wasted clock-puncher. Later, stumbling towards the courthouse – hungover and a bum leg – the witness in tow, Willis looks 100 miles away from his Die Hard days; and that’s all for the better.
Willis’ nemesis is David Morse, playing Frank Nugent, the head of the crooked cop contingent trying to take out the witness, and you couldn’t ask for a better villain. Having played bad guys and second-cop-from-the-left in too many movies to count, Morse could have done this one blindfolded. But Morse pulls out a previously unseen wicked streak here, displaying a seductive quicksilver wit in the many scenes when he tries to talk Willis out of his desperate odyssey. Giving the villain in a Bruce Willis movie pretty much all the punchlines is a risky ploy but here it pays off, allowing Willis to play the underdog and gain some audience sympathy for his shaky run towards some kind of redemption.
As Eddie Bunker, the witness being bounced from one harrowing confrontation to the next, Mos Def is the wild card here. His quiet, laidback humor works wonders in many a film, but here he’s not been given enough to work with. The filmmakers saddle Def with an annoying, high-pitched, Looney Tunes-style voice and a running line of patter that does little more than fill in the blank spaces when Willis is hurrying them down some crowded Chinatown street trying to figure out what to do. Similarly, the film throws in twist after twist as it tries to keep the two of them from making the courthouse, resulting in not so much the bottled-up urban thriller they were hoping for, but instead a hopscotch of patched-together shootouts and chases that ends with a needlessly drawn-out climax.
At about 15 minutes shorter, with a script that actually fleshed out Mos Def’s character instead of trying to turn him into some motormouth caricature – sadly de rigueur for black characters in films of this sort; think Chris Tucker – then 16 Blocks might have actually been something. It’s like the cops say: Move along, nothing to see here.