Jack Mosley, the NYPD detective Bruce Willis plays in ''16 Blocks," is a mess. He's jowly, tubby, grizzled, and exhausted. He has a drunk's complexion (pasty and ruddy at the same time), walks with a limp, and wears a weaselly mustache. After working an all-nighter, Jack is commanded to pick up a convict and drive him to a courthouse, where the con is supposed to play star witness and give up the names of crooked cops at a splashy trial.
Jack doesn't look like he could drive a Big Wheel, let alone efficiently outrun, outthink, and outshoot the pack of coldblooded cops eager to kill the witness before he testifies. But Willis is a pro. He's been here before, and, man, so have we.
''16 Blocks" is a chase drama with a fraying imagination. You watch it thoroughly convinced that Willis has been drunk and hung over for years. Mos Def is quite good, as usual, playing Eddie, Jack's whining charge, like Jerry Lewis on a sedative.
It's the rest of the picture that defies credibility. It's unbelievably bland.
There are foot chases through Chinatown's streets, restaurants, and tenements. And lots of expository conversations among Jack, Eddie, and Frank (David Morse), a detective who is Jack's pal. This all builds to Jack's commandeering a city bus, holding the passengers hostage, then finding a ridiculous way to drive it down the narrowest alleys. This goes down on an allegedly sweltering day, but the movie doesn't make us feel the heat.
The director of ''16 Blocks" is Richard Donner, who, after directing ''The Omen," the original ''Superman" movie, and the entire ''Lethal Weapon" series, among other Hollywood hits, seems to have been laid low by mediocrity. In the movie's press information, Donner says he took one look at Richard Wenk's script and exclaimed, ''I have to direct this!" (The italics are his; the exclamation point is mine.)
Donner's enthusiasm is understandable. His previous picture was ''Timeline," an execrable science-fiction adventure that trapped us in 14th-century France with 21st-century nincompoops.
''16 Blocks" is a kinder, more competent, slightly less forgettable experience. The plot just feels 30 years old, like one for a movie 75-year-old Donner might have tried in his prolific prime. His action direction is still fleet: lots of handheld camerawork and plenty of virile shootouts and crashed-up property. Which is to say, the film is admirably old-fashioned, motivated more by dialogue and character than by a sheer appetite for destruction. In fact, great heterosexual tenderness blooms as Jack and Eddie fall into a big puddle of mutual admiration.
Nobody says so, but ''16 Blocks" feels like a remake of Clint Eastwood's ''The Gauntlet," in which Eastwood tried to transport hooker Sondra Locke from Las Vegas to Phoenix to testify at a mob trial. (Eastwood even commandeers a bus.) ''The Gauntlet" was exciting nonsense. ''16 Blocks" is just dutiful, until all the duty crowds out any fun.
Wesley Morris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.