Bruce Willis movies can be divided neatly into two categories: the ones in which he smirks and the ones in which he doesn't. He's capable of marvelous work (consider his achingly sad performance in "The Sixth Sense"), but too often he looks bored and vaguely amused by what's going on around him, as if he's not really part of it. Happily, the tidy thriller "16 Blocks" falls into the nonsmirking category. While it's no "Sixth Sense," it's perfectly watchable entertainment, with Willis and the always excellent Mos Def ("The Woodsman," "Monster's Ball") forming an appealing two-man team.
Directed by Richard Donner (in far better form than his last film, the silly time-travel thriller "Timeline"), "16 Blocks" takes place in something close to real time. Jack Mosley (Willis) is a weary, seen-it-all New York cop with a bad leg, a bulging belly and a taste for Canadian Club whiskey. He's the sort of guy the other cops use for the baby-sitting jobs; watching over an empty crime scene in an apartment, he idly searches the cupboards for booze. On this day, hung-over and puffy, he's handed what seems to be a routine task: to escort a witness, Eddie Bunker (Def), from a downtown jail to a courtroom 16 blocks away. But on this hot day in Manhattan, nothing is as simple as it seems.
Eddie is a punk, a career petty criminal with a motor mouth and a nervous, wiry energy. Def gives him an oddly tinny, nonstop monotone; he talks faster than Jack thinks, and it's not easy to understand him at first. But Jack eventually tunes in to his frequency, as do we; this guy isn't quite what we thought he was. Neither is Jack, and Willis' nicely subtle performance shows us not a man who doesn't care anymore, but one who knows the perils of caring.
As the plot unfolds, many of its machinations are familiar: bad cops, conspiracies, chases involving various forms of transportation and some sleight-of-hand tricks in which people aren't quite where their pursuers think they are. But it's handled with ease and confidence, with little of the hyperactive, overcaffeinated camera work that's too quickly becoming a thriller cliché.
Those looking for another "Lethal Weapon" franchise from Donner won't find it: There's no room left for a sequel here, just an ending that feels satisfying and right.
While "16 Blocks" may not last much past the month, it stands above much of what we've been offered this season. Hiding among all the uniforms and bullets, it turns out, is an actors' movie, and two actors more than capable of hitting their marks.
Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or firstname.lastname@example.org