The 1980s action movie genre often blurred the good guy-bad guy paradigm with flawed protagonists who overcame tumultuous pasts to ultimately do the right thing and vanquish whatever evil lay in their path, especially when the conflict became personal. Overtly nihilistic or workaholic types such as Martin Riggs (Mel Gibson in "Lethal Weapon") and John McClane (Bruce Willis in "Die Hard") cut loose their inner demons to fire off some heavy artillery and pump the real villains full of lead.
Nearly two decades later, director Richard Donner (a veteran of all four "Lethal Weapon" films) teams with Willis for "16 Blocks," a denuded version of an '80s action film, one that replaces firepower with 1970s grit and drama.
A ticking clock scenario and a terrific performance by Willis as an alcoholic NYPD detective make up for the film's occasional missteps and some strange pop culture references.
Det. Jack Mosley is a perpetually hung-over burnout who is literally on his last legs as a cop, reduced to doing menial duties such as baby-sitting crime scenes.
Gray as a ghost, Willis plays the world-weary Mosley like a man who has been dipped in concrete and is waiting for someone to dump him in the river. This is the worn-out edition of the '80s action hero, 20 years older and a whole lot slower.
At the tail end of an overnight shift, Jack's lieutenant catches him on the way out and asks him to transport a petty criminal named Eddie Bunker (Mos Def) the titular distance from the precinct to the courthouse.
It's 8:02 a.m., and Bunker needs be in court by 10. The almost real-time drama efficiently makes use of the tension implied by the setup, and Donner deftly moves the action along at a pace that balances thrills and respites.
Eddie is a motormouth who proves grating to Jack even before they get into the car. Mos Def, the rapper and musician who has built a solid acting résumé on stage and in TV and theatrical films, is extremely compelling in the role but is saddled with an odd Bugs Bunny way of speaking that wears thin quickly. Donner and screenwriter Richard Wenk use the character as comic relief much the same way Joe Pesci was deployed in the later "Lethal Weapons" and almost as annoyingly.
Out of the precinct, Mosley and Eddie aren't on the road two minutes, stuck in morning gridlock, when Jack decides to quench his thirst and stop at a liquor store, where he's on a first-name basis with the proprietors. He returns to the car just in time to foil a hit on Eddie, and the mismatched duo takes off on foot hunted by a phalanx of cops, led by Jack's ex-partner, Frank Nugent (David Morse), who want to ensure that Eddie doesn't live to testify against one of their own.
Combining footage shot in Toronto and New York, Donner creates a reasonably convincing sense of Manhattan as Mosley and Eddie thread their way through the labyrinthine streets of Chinatown eluding their pursuers. Though one scene would seem to confirm the urban myth that all the area's Chinese restaurants utilize one giant subterranean kitchen — complete with a laundry — the film's street scenes are steeped in stark realism.
Willis and Mos Def's chemistry allows the movie to work on the level of a buddy picture with Jack's cynicism no match for Eddie's belief that anybody is capable of changing. But the relationship also provides a foundation for the meatier theme of redemption, and the film's depiction of a defeated man summoning the moral courage to address his past is, satisfyingly, more '70s than '80s.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times