Saying 16 Blocks is Richard Donner’s least flatulent, most efficient film is tantamount to saying that Donner’s work usually makes me want to step in front of a speeding semi. But in his dotage Donner has abandoned his Six Million Dollar Man–trained blunt-force trauma and bends with the flow of the DV-era river, keeping his new movie (which is celluloid) relatively small boned, handheld, on-location savvy, and free of in-jokes. Of course, the clichés come thick on the ground: Broken-down, gimpy, alcoholic detective Bruce Willis must escort witness Mos Def (with a grating, put-on cartoon voice) to the courthouse, but the eponymous stretch of congested downtown Manhattan becomes a Rubicon-crossing filthy with dirty cops looking to take the punk out.
Little more than a remake of the sorry Clint Eastwood vehicle The Gauntlet
(1977)—without the Frank Frazetta poster art and Sondra Locke’s pallid kvetching—Donner’s movie, perhaps inadvertently, might be the most cynical portrait of New York cops anyone’s dared to make in the years since 9-11. Whatever he might’ve intended, this deep into a career littered with half-thoughts and cheap shots, Donner should be careful where he parks when he comes to town. It’s a small movie trying to seem epic, or a bloated monster trying to seem lean (real B movies don’t have 14 producers), but it’s clear that at 99 minutes, 16 Blocks should’ve been at least 20 minutes shorter still—whenever Def’s wisecracking victim starts wistfully talking about his plans to open a birthday cake bakery, the movie lifts its heavy foot off the pedal and drops into a narcoleptic nap.
Ordinary credibility gaps aside, the amount of brisk urban realism and the degree to which the narrative resists spoon-feeding us plot points shouldn’t seem like novelties at this stage, but they do. The massive mush factor, on the other hand, is no surprise, particularly the way it’s used to demonstrate that Def’s weasely character is worth rescuing because he’s sweet to kids and old people, not unlike the westerns in which lynch law is proven wrong because the victims are often innocent.