Jack Mosley is a disheveled, paunchy, bleary-eyed city cop with a bad leg who's been around the block way too many times. As played by a relatively silent Bruce Willis (usually the most talkative of actors), he exudes a world-weariness. He'd rather have a drink than work another night shift, and usually dips into a bottle right at his desk. When Jack is asked to do a favor -- escort a witness from the station to a courthouse -- he agrees only so he won't have to muster the strength to argue about it.
The appearance of the escortee, one Eddie Bunker (Mos Def), marks the beginning of a terrific character study of both men: the one being brought, and the one doing the bringing. Eddie is a talker, the exact opposite of Jack. Eddie just blabbers on, a slightly annoying whine in his voice, to anyone who is or isn't listening, or perhaps to himself. Although Jack, in need of sleep and a drink, doesn't want to hear it, Eddie, in the back seat of Jack's car, offers inner thoughts, philosophical questions and advice. Among his blather are some gems. When Jack, finally talking, tells him that people can't change, Eddie says, "I'll make you eat your words, and lick your fingers, too."
The revelation that their car is being followed, by many people, all of them armed, introduces the idea that someone doesn't want Eddie to make it to the courthouse, where he's to testify against some dirty cops. It also kicks the film into action mode, furiously, with guns blazing and cars zigzagging through New York traffic (although it was shot in Toronto) on a hot summer day -- so hot that Jack mops his brow more than he speaks.
Almost without blinking, this turns into a film about bad cops against an unwitting good cop. There's no waiting around to see who the villain will be. It's Frank Nugent (David Morse), former partner to Jack, and now a very bad cop. Frank first helps Jack out of a tight situation, then says he'll be more than happy to take over the escorting duties. But when he blurts out that the witness must not be allowed to testify, Jack sobers up quickly, literally wakes up from his stupor, from his lengthy period of being a burnout. So it becomes Jack (and Eddie) versus a whole battery of anxious and angry men who will do anything to stop them.
On paper, this story sounds like it's been around the block more times than Jack, but both Willis and Mos Def give solid performances as characters working with and against each other. The latter is especially effective in that, while Eddie isn't exactly a comic role, he has a degree of charm and does provide a good deal of humor. And the ever-dependable Morse plays his part with a steady calm and a quiet intensity, until it's time for him not to be so quiet anymore.
Another nice touch is that the film is shot, more or less, in real time, in the vein of 24. Clocks on walls are seen, people are looking at their watches, there's constant mention of the time of the trial that's awaiting a witness, and from Eddie, of a "very important appointment" after his court appearance.
Director Richard Donner, who got plenty of urban police practice directing episodes of The Streets of San Francisco and Kojak, as well as all four Lethal Weapon movies, fills this film with exciting segments. One superb scene has a bevy of bad cops, on foot, chasing a city bus and trying to shoot out its tires. Another has Jack and Eddie being hunted down in a cramped tenement building. A loud, energetic and propulsive score by Klaus Bedelt adds to the tense atmosphere and never gets in the way. But some of the best scenes are the quiet ones, such as when Jack and Frank are only a few feet from each other, but separated by a wall, slowly talking about their situation as they're each reloading their guns.
The film falls short on believability every time the pack of bloodthirsty cops manages to work their way through the crowded streets and get to distant spots too easily. But when attention comes back to the developing relationship between Jack and Eddie (and the question of whether or not people can change), the glitches are forgotten.
Near the end, revelations about both of them come flying, perhaps too quickly for total understanding. But the characters are enjoyable, the action is wild and the tying up of loose ends is done in a most satisfactory manner.
16 Blocks; Rated PG-13; Directed by Richard Donner; Starring Bruce Willis, Mos Def, David Morse