More exciting than expected and yet not nearly as gripping as it could have been, 16 Blocks barrels ahead with bumpy, bristling B-movie brio without ever fully outrunning its creaky clichés and plot inconsistencies. In other words, it’s significantly more tolerable than most of director Richard Donner’s recent crummy output, but it’s also no Red Eye or Cellular. Reconfiguring Clint Eastwood’s The Gauntlet to conform to Donner’s laborious crazy white guy/exasperated black guy Lethal Weapon template, this rickety almost-real-time thriller follows gimpy, hung-over detective Jack Mosley (a grizzled, grumpy Bruce Willis) as he atones for past sins by escorting witness Eddie Bunker (Mos Def) the titular distance to court while being hunted by the crooked former partner (David Morse) who wants Eddie permanently silenced. Redemption seemingly lying in wait on the far side of downtown Manhattan, Mosley navigates his urban obstacle course with silent surliness, only opening his mouth to tell his handcuffed charge that “days change, seasons change, people don’t”—a gloomy sentiment that, in Richard Wenk’s simplistic and stacked-deck script, is predictably counterbalanced by Eddie’s oft-stated conviction in people’s ability to transform themselves for the better.
Whenever Mosley and Bunker’s conversations temporarily stray from the purely functional and into message-imparting mode, the film kicks and lurches like a dying jalopy, undermining the otherwise lean efficiency with which Donner steers his metropolitan odyssey. Yet largely stripped of peripheral distractions, 16 Blocks generates heat both from its sinewy single-mindedness—its breakneck momentum enough to obscure some of the more glaring narrative potholes along its path—and its familiar but nonetheless authentic sense of its bustling NYC-in-the-morning milieu. If only said realism extended to Mos Def’s performance. As aspiring baker and birthday cake-maker Eddie, the rapper-turned-actor assumes a nasally, Elmer Fudd-ish voice that makes him sound as if he’s attempting to speak directly through his schnoz, an inexplicable and aggravating affectation matched by the role’s requirement that he behave like a cute, manic motormouth at every turn. That the film fails to cast doubt on Eddie’s heart of gold obliterates any opportunity to lace Mosley’s point-of-no-return decision with some doubt-laden tension. But after five minutes of enduring the character’s fretting and fussing in that insufferable accent, such concerns are essentially negated by the more pressing desire for Eddie to simply shut his pie hole.