Some movie plots seem to have been plucked out of the air on a “what if…” basis, taking some absurd notion to its logical conclusion. Take Phone Booth(2002) for example. The what if… in that feature was whether it’d be possible to keep Colin Farrell in a phone booth for an entire movie. Doesn’t necessarily sound good on paper, but the resulting movie was better than it had any right to be. Another example would be Speed (1994). It’s not hard to imagine the studio execs arching their eyebrows and saying, “I’ve got this right: it’s set on a bus that can’t go slower than thirty miles an hour…?”
Take yet another what if… scenario: what if Bruce Willis had to transport a prisoner 16 blocks and it took him the whole damn movie to do it? Sounds crazy, but that movie got made.
Bruce Willis plays Jack Mosley, a tired, middle-aged cop, who has to mop his brow at the top of a flight of stairs and owns the kind of moustache last seen on the Village People. He’s awoken from his weary, drunken trance when the prisoner he’s been ordered to take to a grand jury hearing just 16 blocks away is the victim of an attempted assassination. It turns out that the prisoner, Eddie Bunker (Mos Def), is a crucial witness in a police corruption trial and now half the NYPD want him dead. Rather than turn a blind eye to Eddie’s murder—something, it’s implied, he may have done in the past—Mosley gains a conscience and makes it his business to get Eddie to court, even if it kills him.
Leading the corrupt police is Mosely‘s former partner, Frank Nugent (played by the excellent David Morse), a gritty, gum chewing, morally dubious detective of the kind that populated crime movies of the 70s. In fact, the whole movie has a 70s vibe to it, thanks to the timeless New York backdrop and overcast skies.
The movie ducks and weaves through New York’s Chinatown, through its sweatshop basements and rooftops as Mosely and Eddie try and stay one step ahead of the cops on their tail. There‘s a slight touch of 24 to the proceedings as it largely happens in real time (Eddie has to get to court before 10am or the jury will be dismissed).
Willis is spot on as the fatigued Mosely, although the mumbling Mos Def is an acquired taste with his relentless chatter. Richard Donner‘s direction is assured and dynamic, and he has no need to rely on any flashy techniques to tell the story. The plot is always interesting, constantly lurching in new directions, although there is probably one twist and turn too many by the time the credits roll.
The film is as much character study as it is action movie: Donner takes the time to invest the main trio with real personalities, and it pays dividends because 16 Blocks has more depth than most action movies coming out of Hollywood combined. It does have its flaws and plot holes you could drive and ambulance (or two) through, but works perfectly adequately as a solid and intelligent piece of action entertainment.