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Hard Ride 

Stuck with Bruce Willis in rush-hour traffic? You could always walk.

Manhattan turns to mayhem on the way to the courthouse.
  • Manhattan turns to mayhem on the way to the courthouse.

Didn't Richard Donner retire? A 1980s star-director name that should now send bolts of discouraging dread down your spine, Richard Donner may well be seeing his filmmaking skills peak with 16 Blocks -- even if saying it's his best, least flatulent, most efficient film is tantamount to saying that the guy's work usually makes me want to step in front of a speeding semi. Donner's style exemplified the smirking, post-Spielberg big-budget brain rape, and only he and his producers, their eyelids clamped open, should ever have to re-endure the uremic corpus he squeezed out between Superman (1978) and Lethal Weapon 4 (1998).

Now, however, Donner in his dotage abandons his Six Million Dollar Man-trained blunt-force trauma and bends with the flow of the DV-era river, keeping his new movie relatively small-boned, hand-held, on-location savvy, and free of in-jokes. It's a lesson that sailed past the team responsible for, say, Firewall, if you were to be chained to your theater seat and forced to choose one creaky old-man thriller over another.

Even so, 16 Blocks manages to be a rather mawkish cliché engine, albeit one made pleasantly sufferable by the tight pacing built into Richard Wenk's real-time screenplay. The stereotypes and borrowings come thick on the ground: Broken-down, gimpy, alcoholic detective Jack Mosley (Bruce Willis) is instructed at the end of his slouching night shift to escort a prisoner to the courthouse to testify, but the eponymous stretch of congested downtown Manhattan is immediately turned into bullet-sprayed mayhem, as grungy Orc-like bad guys hit the streets with combat ordnance to take out the witness. The "kid," Eddie Bunker (Mos Def), saw some cop do something, and for the next hour and a half, nearly every member of the rampagingly corrupt NYPD breaks every law in broad daylight just to take the punk down. Perhaps inadvertently, 16 Blocks is the most cynical portrait of New York cops anyone's dared to make in years; the thrust here is distinctly closer to Serpico-style '70s than post-9/11 genuflection. Typical of Donner, it would appear that sensational plot machinations overruled any consideration of reality, responsibility, or even thematic message.

Willis, for his part, is acting his age (conspicuous paunch and all), but in the familiar, slow-burn, wincing-soap-opera manner that seems acceptable for American movie stars, so long as they're not partnered with a real actor and asked to muster genuinely persuasive moments.

Credibility's already an endangered concern in Hollywood; you wouldn't think that, to keep a corruption-trial witness from reaching the stand, a detective would run down a busy street during the morning rush hour and wildly shoot out the tires of a crowded city bus. But if you were hunting for verisimilitude, we wouldn't be having this conversation.

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