Three years ago, I thought the dream was over. "Timeline" was director Richard Donner's last picture, and it was an uncharacteristic disaster. After building a career with such classics as "Superman," "Lethal Weapon," "Ladyhawke," and "The Omen," Donner put in a half-hearted effort with the medieval adventure, in a production that felt doomed from the start. Thank goodness the fear of Donner's exhausted capabilities can now be laid to rest. His new thriller, "16 Blocks" is a cozy, spry little humdinger, returning the filmmaker to material that nurtures his confidence, and offers a limited location he can get creative with.
Initially, "16 Blocks" feels like a mash-up version of "Lethal Weapon" and the third "Die Hard" picture in the way that it incorporates both snappy dialog and tight, city-intensive action. With loads of handheld camerawork and a fixation with intricately staged standoffs, the film has all the sizzling rhythms of an action movie. The opening gunshot fired is almost worth the price of admission alone in the way Donner depicts the blunt shock of violence mixed with Mosley's tipsy realization that trouble is about to rain down from all sides. "16 Blocks" gets the juices flowing quickly as the duo weave their way through Chinese laundromats, over rooftops, and on the sticky summer sidewalks, threatening a fever pitch that promises the film will get more explosive and gangbusters as it heads toward a resolution.
But that doesn't happen. Instead, "16 Blocks" gets smaller.
The screenplay by Richard Wenk ("Just the Ticket") is one that favors character interaction and places all its chips on the wager that the chemistry between Mosley and Bunker will be all the film needs for fuel for the hushed second half. It's a smart bet. Wonderfully performed by Bruce Willis and Mos Def, Donner labors mightily to get this odd couple underneath the viewer's skin, to feel compassion for their noble intentions and, for Bunker, his lofty birthday cake baking dreams. The actors skillfully work their characters' weaknesses, especially Willis, who gives Mosley silently tortured shadings to acknowledge the character's deteriorating health for most of the film. Mosley is not a cardboard action hero, but a man in over his head, out of breath, and aching for a drink. It's excellent work from Willis.
The quality of Mos Def's performance is a real surprise, along with being the film's biggest potential vulnerability. Affecting a very specific and bizarre speech pattern for Bunker, Def introduces an initial creeping fear that comes when an actor has made a horrible mistake. The panic soon subsides when it's clear that Wenk and Def are able to get Bunker past his horrible voice, and shove him into a three-dimensional character. It takes some time, but Def sneaks up on you with his unusual acting choices. It's only a shame that Def's ambitions didn't rub off on David Morse, who gives a very conventional reading of his role, despite the interesting efforts Wenk and Donner make to tie the character in close to Mosley.
"16 Blocks" makes a lot of noise during its running time, but it ends on notes of character and compassion over pyrotechnics and disorder. It takes the sure hand of a veteran like Donner to maintain stability like this, especially after witnessing the rabid visual overcompensation of last week's "Running Scared," which makes "Blocks" all the more engaging. This is a classically made New York character thriller, and if there are still fans out there of composed, attentive filmmaking, "16 Blocks" is your best bet for entertainment this month.