In the larcenous tradition of The Island’s total cop of 1979’s The Clonus Horror, new-plot-averse Hollywood banks again on mass audience amnesia and remakes Clint Eastwood’s 1977 The Gauntlet as 16 Blocks. OK—16 Blocks is way different from The Gauntlet. For instance, it takes place in New York, not Phoenix. And instead of Sondra Locke as a gold-hearted prostitute, we get Mos Def, muttering his way through Block’s gold-hearted petty con.
Hugely original changes aside, Bruce Willis plays Jack Mosley, a dissolute cop badly in need of redemption, which comes in the form of chatty prisoner Eddie Bunker (Def), who must be delivered to court by a certain time so as to testify what he knows about some shady cops. Trying to stop them is David Morse, Mosley’s cherubically evil ex-partner. Along the way, of course, Willis and Def learn to trust one another and, in so doing, learn what really matters.
Although born in New York, director Richard Donner is no Sidney Lumet, whose frayed-nerve energy might have reanimated even this limping clone. Instead, Donner offers lazy hackwork. We’re never given any clear notion of which Gotham blocks are traversed, and so much for the thrills and ironies of the Kafka-like epic urban journey limned so well in Walter Hill’s The Warriors. And is it asking too much not to have Mosley stand in front of a subway clearly defined as canal street in one shot and in the very next wall street?
One of the smarter things Donner did with his Lethal Weapon movies was to evoke nearly unbearable tension between Mel Gibson and Danny Glover—will they shoot or fuck each other?—but no queer-subtext sparks fly between Willis and Def. Instead, the friction comes from Willis trying to look distressed and Def acting like he’s looking for a graceful exit. And, considering the source, Willis pales in terms of archetypal value to Eastwood, whose mere presence automatically enriches a movie with his alternately über-potent/pitiably messed-up all-American loner persona. Willis represents nothing much more resonant than being a smart-ass prick, and, in misunderstanding his own cinematic archetype, Willis proves here that that he hasn’t the chops to play against it.
Ultimately, 16 Blocks is a nostalgic exercise in the buddy-action genre Donner helped define in the 1980s. When, in their inevitable big confrontation scene, Morse doesn’t actually say to Willis, “You know, Jack, we’re more alike than you think,” you’re almost disappointed.