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Running the Gauntlet

 

16 Blocks

Richard Donner, USA, 2006

Rating: 4.0

 

Posted: March 15, 2006

By Kevin Forest Moreau

Movie stars of a certain stature are often prisoners of their own larger-than-life personas. Certainly, Bruce Willis is one of them: It's been a long time -- since the spectacularly indulgent vanity project Hudson Hawk, at least -- since audiences could buy the actor as an everyman and not as Bruce Willis, mega-star. But every now and then, Willis likes to step out of his gruff, wisecracking autopilot mode and remind us that he can actually, you know, act.

While it never rises above a standard-issue action flick, 16 Blocks nevertheless offers one of those reminders. As beaten-down cop Jack Mosley, Willis limps right into his character's quiet resignation to a life of bottom-rung assignments -- babysitting a corpse until the crime-scene investigators arrive, or ferrying a witness to the courthouse -- that require little more than a warm body. Even before we see him drinking on the job -- surefire cinema shorthand for "loser running from his past" -- we register his sad sack's unspoken acknowledgment of his co-workers' awkwardness around him, as if he were a disabled gofer whose disability everyone acknowledges but never directly addresses.

Soon enough, Mosley's slow, slouching plod toward retirement is thrown a curveball when he's saddled with escorting small-time con Eddie Bunker (Mos Def, in subtle showing-off mode) to the aforementioned courthouse (sixteen blocks away) to testify before a grand jury. And sure enough, it's a set-up: As soon as Mosley makes a brief, unscheduled stop at a liquor store, an attempt is made on Bunker's life, and before long Mosley is face-to-face with his old partner Frank Nugent (David Morse), who quietly implores Mosley to look the other way so some corrupt cops can eradicate him before his testimony implicates them. Morse invests his part with a nice sense of subtle menace, gently talking down to his onetime companion as if he were steering an Alzheimer's patient toward nap time at the senior center.

It's not Nugent's condescension that spurs Mosley to action, but into action he does spring, risking his life on a sixteen-block obstacle course for a petty criminal he doesn't even know. It's a nagging flaw that we have to take Mosley's newly revived sense of right and wrong on faith (although if his former partner is crooked, we can surmise that there's been some bad behavior in his own past). But veteran director Richard Donner keeps things running at a brisk enough trot that we don't spend too long worrying about it.

Shot by cinematographer Glen MacPherson in a slightly claustrophobic wash of New York haze, this agreeable riff on Clint Eastwood's The Gauntlet -- complete with a sequence involving a city bus -- hits its marks with all the precision you'd expect (or demand) of the veteran behind the Lethal Weapon films. And the script (credited to Richard Wenk) packs its fair share of familiar character beats (most of them for Mos Def's Bunker, who wants to open a bakery and continually impresses upon Mosley that people can change, etc.). But this serviceable thriller is most memorable for its all-too-rare glimpse beyond the shopworn façade of Bruce Willis. It's not Oscar material -- it's not even Nobody's Fool or The Sixth Sense -- but it's a pleasant little revelation nonetheless.

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