Mos Def didn't require much screen time in Monster's Ball to make an impression with moviegoers who knew little about his prominent standing in the world of hip-hop music (or his extensive TV work up to that point). As Billy Bob Thornton's farmland neighbor, the rapper-turned-actor only appears for a couple of minutes here and there, but he's so fascinating to watch that we momentarily forget it's Halle Berry who's giving the Oscar-winning performance in the film.
Mos Def has since turned up in several more theatrical features -- stealing scenes in Brown Sugar and The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, offering solid support in The Woodsman and The Italian Job -- but 16 Blocks represents his first opportunity to gain clout as a marquee attraction. He's paired with action vet Bruce Willis, but just because director Richard Donner is behind the controls doesn't mean we should worry that this will turn out to be a pale imitation of Donner's tiresome Lethal Weapon buddy flicks. 16 Blocks is mercifully free of the jokey nature and penchant for overkill that dogged the inexplicably popular Mel Gibson-Danny Glover franchise. What's more, Willis delivers a gruff, grounded performance that's a far cry from Gibson's "Look, Ma, I'm acting!" antics. (Watching Gibson, as cop-on-the-edge Martin Riggs, run through a thousand facial tics in less than a minute reminded me less of a detective trying to keep his personal demons at bay than a porn star exhibiting his satisfaction during his moment of climactic release.)
Willis, admirably looking his age and then some, stars as New York detective Jack Mosley, a badge-carrying bum whose love for the bottle has reduced him to a has-been on the police force. One morning after working the night shift, he's ready to head for home (or a nearby bar) when he's ordered to transport a petty criminal from the jail to the courthouse 16 blocks away. He has two hours to deliver the man, but really, it's a job that should only take 15 minutes, tops. But it turns out Eddie Bunker (Mos Def) isn't your ordinary punk picked up for snatching a purse or stealing a TV set. Instead, Eddie is the key witness in a case in which he's expected to testify against some crooked cops.
Jack doesn't know this at the outset; it's only when someone attempts to shoot Eddie en route that he realizes something big is going down. He calls for backup to help him escort the prisoner, only to learn that the officers who show up -- including his former partner Frank Nugent (David Morse) -- are the bad cops that Eddie can finger. It therefore boils down to a moment of reckoning for Jack: Will he walk away and let Eddie be murdered, or -- for the first time in many years -- will he do the right thing and keep Eddie alive in order to deliver him to the courthouse? The answer is a shocking one: Jack allows the crooked cops to kill Eddie in cold blood and then goes home to drown himself in alcohol for the rest of his days.
Just kidding. The name of the movie is 16 Blocks, not 3-1/2 Blocks, so of course Jack pulls himself out of his booze-soaked haze with the intent of saving Eddie and running the gauntlet.
And speaking of "gauntlet," the script by Richard Wenk owes at least a cursory nod in the direction of 1977's The Gauntlet, in which detective Clint Eastwood must deliver prostitute Sondra Locke to the courthouse steps so that she can testify against -- you guessed it -- corrupt cops. The Gauntlet ends with the pair navigating the final few blocks of their journey aboard a bus. Likewise, after several exciting scenes in which our protagonists evade their hunters by foot, 16 Blocks unfortunately bogs down during the mid-section when Jack and Eddie commandeer a city bus. Considering that The Gauntlet might be Eastwood's worst movie -- it's certainly his stupidest -- it's an unfortunate similarity, but thankfully this new film rights itself in time for a fairly taut third act.
Wenk attempts to inject a few surprises into the formulaic framework, but anybody who's seen enough thrillers of this nature -- or, in the case of one particular bait-and-switch, seen The Silence of the Lambs -- won't be fooled by most of them (admittedly, the identity of the woman in Frank's life caught me off guard). Yet 16 Blocks works as a throwback to the "B" flicks of yore, when an unflagging pace, a few dollops of humor and a couple of sharply etched characterizations were enough to justify a matinee ticket. Donner, an old pro whose lengthy career has seen its share of ups (Superman, The Omen) and downs (The Toy, the 2003 flop Timeline), relies on meat-and-potatoes techniques to tell his story (no Cuisinart editing here), while Wenk's Yu-Gi-Oh! punchline in one quiet scene is arguably the film's comic highlight.
Willis offers a slight variation on his new signature role as the seasoned gunslinger whose gruff exterior harbors an innate desire to protect the innocent and punish the guilty (see also Hostage, Sin City, the upcoming Lucky Number Slevin, many more). He's solid in the role, yet it's his co-star who takes the spotlight. The part of Eddie Bunker could have been a rehash of the sorts of characters we invariably see in this type of yarn -- Eddie Murphy by way of Samuel L. Jackson. Yet Mos Def, given a leg up by Wenk's scripting, heads off in a different direction, portraying Eddie not as an impertinent braggart held prisoner by his own inflated sense of macho posturing but as a sensitive, soft-spoken guy whose eternal optimism allows him to remain grounded by his faith in his own abilities. That this small-time crook with a laundry list of petty crimes fantasizes of opening a bakery (specializing in birthday cakes, no less) may strike some viewers as unlikely, but Mos Def completely sells us on the dream.