MOVIE REVIEW '16 Blocks' tells an entertaining story

Bruce Willis gets a chance to act at something other than being smug.
It is a very good week for Mos Def fans.
The hip-hop artist/actor with the James Dean-like vulnerability pops up in "Dave Chappelle's Block Party" and gives the taut, intelligent "16 Blocks" its soul. He plays a convict released into the custody of a weary cop (Bruce Willis, aged, liver-spotted and beer-gutted).
They have two hours to make a 16-block trip to a courthouse, where Def is supposed to testify in a police corruption case, but that perilous journey has many obstacles, including, not surprisingly, corrupt police.
One of the best things about the movie is that it gets its tension from what we know and don't know about the characters, not from bashing us over the head with lame action sequences. The cop and the con have a lot in common -- they're both used to being underestimated, for instance, which works in their favor. And both exist in a gray area that gives their characters shades of meaning, keeping us on edge about whether they really intend to do the right thing.
The roles
The cop is vaguely incompetent, which gives Willis a chance to act instead of doing that smug, wisecracky thing he usually does (you could think of "16 Blocks" as "Die Hard With a Pension"). The subtle script doesn't tell us how we're supposed to feel about the cop or about the witness, although Mos Def's enormous empathy and tenderness make it difficult to imagine not liking any character he plays.
The script seems to be taking its cues from the characters, not the other way around, so we're constantly surprised. And yet, even as the movie switches back on itself, we never feel that it is manipulating us or cheating us. Each character has clearly defined traits (Willis feels like time is running out on him, Def thinks he will have time to realize his dreams), and it's these things that keep us interested in them as they navigate the twisty, lugelike course the movie lays out for them.
I don't want to overpraise "16 Blocks," which is the sort of modest, entertaining B-movie Hollywood used to churn out effortlessly. It simply wants to tell a story, and, although that occasionally leads it astray -- the movie is so careful not to say anything about race that the actors who play corrupt cops are as cautiously multiculti as one of those plucky teams in a kids' sports movie -- the story it tells is a mighty entertaining one.

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