'16 Blocks' is for die-hard Bruce Willis fans

I hope Bruce Willis wasn't getting paid by the word for "16 Blocks" because, all told, he utters about 20.

Willis plays Jack Mosley, one of those down-on-their-luck NYPD detectives that filmmakers and TV producers just love to redeem. Jack has skidded into alcoholism. He has a bad leg and a chalky complexion. He lives alone. Obviously Jack is ready for his makeover.

The process begins early in the film when he is assigned the routine task of delivering petty criminal Eddie Bunker (Mos Def) to the courthouse 16 blocks away. Eddie is scheduled to testify before a grand jury at 10 a.m. as a witness to police corruption. The operation should take 15 minutes but, en route, everything goes haywire. Suddenly Jack and Eddie are fleeing a squadron of dirty cops, headed up by Jack's former partner, Frank Nugent (David Morse), who want to execute the snitch before he testifies against them.

By the way, if some of these character's names sound vaguely familiar, that's because they are: Edward Bunker was an ex-con who wrote the book "Straight Time," about a parolee in trouble, that was made into a movie starring Dustin Hoffman. Frank Nugent was a scenarist who wrote a number of John Ford classics, including "The Quiet Man," "The Searchers," and "Two Rode Together." Just a little in-joke, I'm sure.

The movie could have used more jokes, in or otherwise. Director Richard Donner ("Superman," "Lethal Weapon") is an old pro who knows his way around a shootout. He has even been known to coax a good performance out of an action star - Mel Gibson was never better than in Donner's "Conspiracy Theory."

But screenwriter Richard Wenk's imagination is strictly by the book. The big set pieces, like the chase through Chinatown and the S.W.A.T. team situation involving a transit bus, are so familiar that they barely register.

The script's one terrific idea - that Jack and Frank have to constantly match wits because they know each other's habits so well - gets buried in all the tumult. Except for the nonstop spiel issuing from Eddie, everybody's dialogue sounds like it was generated by a screenwriter computer program - let's call it "Hardbitten 1A."

It's not as if Willis is incapable of handling something higher up the cinema food chain than, say, the "Die Hard" movies. He has shown himself to be a resourceful actor in such films as "In Country," "Nobody's Fool," and "The Sixth Sense" (all of which featured on-the-skids characters not dissimilar to Jack). In "16 Blocks," he's trying to convert Jack's coldness into a slow burn, but not enough heat comes through.

The one bright spot in all this is Mos Def's performance. His Eddie is a shambling motormouth who grew up in a series of bad foster homes and has spent half his life in lockup. But he wants to make good - he wants to go straight. Jack, on the other hand, doesn't believe anybody can change (least of all himself).

Eddie's dream of becoming a baker who specializes in children's birthday cakes is just the sort of dumb conceit that this film specializes in, but Mos Def makes it work. It's a truly daring piece of acting because it skirts racial stereotyping and is so out of key with everything else in the movie. But that's just why it is so good. The effect of his performance is like walking into an elevator playing Muzak and suddenly hearing a fine and mellow piece of jazz. Grade: B

Rated PG-13 for violence, intense sequences of action, and strong language.

Sex/Nudity: None. Violence: 12 instances. Profanity: 25 expressions, many strong. Drugs/Alcohol/Tobacco: 3 instances of drinking.

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