Actor-turned-rapper-turned-actor-again Mos Def pulls off a Jamie Foxx-like feat in this unassuming action movie. Like Foxx teamed with Tom Cruise in “Collateral,” Def shares just about every shot in the film with a major star — in this case, Bruce Willis — and he holds his own each step of the way. In fact, because of Willis’s remarkably generous performance (he’s a man of very few words here, and his usual action persona is dialed way down) Def pretty much walks away with the picture.
Willis plays Jack Mosley, an over-the-hill, out-of-shape New York City police detective with a bum leg and a bad drinking problem. At 8 a.m. one morning, weary and hung over, Mosley is assigned to pick up a prisoner from jail and take him to the Centre Street court house, where the prisoner, a small-time hustler named Eddie Bunker (Mos Def), is scheduled to testify before a grand jury in a big police-corruption case. It’s crucial that Eddie be there — the grand jury will only be in session for two more hours, and if Eddie doesn’t make it on time to testify, the case will collapse. Since the court house is only 16 blocks away, this wouldn’t seem to be a problem.
It immediately becomes one, of course, starting with Eddie Bunker himself. Eddie has a yappy, grating, adenoidal voice with which he likes to narrate life’s every passing moment — he won’t shut up. He may have spent half his life in prison, but he learned a trade there — he’s a baker — and now, having cut a get-out-of-jail-free deal for his grand jury testimony, he believes he can open his own bakery and turn his life around. He’s an optimist. “Chuck Berry got arrested,” he tells Jack. “He changed.” Jack sees the world a little differently. “I believe that life’s too long,” he tells Eddie. “And guys like you make it even longer.”
Jack stuffs Eddie into the back seat of his car and wheels out into the chaotic traffic of the morning rush hour. He doesn’t notice an ominous-looking van on his tail, so after pulling over to duck into a liquor store and pick up a bottle of whiskey, he’s startled, on stepping back out, to see a guy aiming a gun at Eddie through the car window, preparing to blow him away. The guy’s not alone, and when bullets start to fly, Jack — whose sole interest up till now has been to make it through each fading day with the least possible amount of professional effort — does a very uncharacteristic thing: He saves Eddie’s life. And he continues saving it as their pursuers chase them through the bars and across the roofs of Little Italy and down into the teeming, souk-like streets of Chinatown.
These pursuers turn out to be cops, and Jack knows them — they’re the six fellow officers at the center of the corruption investigation, and they’ll be taking a big fall if Eddie makes it to the court house to testify against them. They’re determined not to let that happen. The baddest of these bad guys is Frank Nugent (David Morse), Jack’s one-time partner. Frank is a soft-spoken, gum-chewing creep who plays on what he hopes will be Jack’s loyalty to his old buddies — just walk away, he tells Jack, so we can take this kid out. Unfortunately, he’s caught Jack on the wrong day — washed-up sod though he may be, this is a line he’s not going to cross. Maybe Eddie’s right. Maybe even Jack can change.
“16 Blocks” is surprisingly sweet. It was directed by Richard Donner, the 75-year-old action vet who did all four “Lethal Weapon” movies, and it has a gritty urban milieu that recalls ’70s cop flicks like “The French Connection” and “Dog Day Afternoon.” Also like those earlier films, it leaves plenty of room for its actors to inhabit. Bruce Willis stows his trademark smirky charm to crumple down completely into the character of the middle-aged loser Jack Mosley. And David Morse, as the likable but lethal Frank Nugent, does an extraordinary thing, too — with an insinuating warmth belied by calculating eyes, he seems to be channeling a younger Gene Hackman.
But it’s Mos Def who truly shines. When he subtly shows us the flickers of fear licking around the edges of his funny, non-stop monologue, and when he turns to a scared little girl during a tense standoff in a bus and tells her how much he’d like to bake her a very special birthday cake, he’s a man in touch with a talent that should take him far. Make that even farther.
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