Bruce Willis Joins the Donner Party

Bruce Willis | Michael Jackson | Sex Pistols

Bruce Willis Joins the Donner Party

Richard Donner is one of those under-appreciated commercial Hollywood directors — he makes blockbuster hits, but gets no respect.

Every once in a while, a little magic falls over his material — as in "Superman 2," or "Lethal Weapon 4" — and you feel really good about him. But more often than not, Donner is depended on more to save a studio’s financial quarter than to get good reviews.

So it is with great pleasure that I tell you that his new one, "16 Blocks," is one heck of a good movie. Bruce Willis — whose career resume contains some real duds ("Hudson Hawk," "The Last Boy Scout," "The Kid," "Hostage," etc.) and a few gems ("Bandits," "Pulp Fiction," "The Sixth Sense") — stars as a down-and-out alcoholic New York police detective whose 20-year career is pretty much ruined.

Willis looks so awful in the first few scenes that you can’t believe it’s him. But that’s always a good sign, as Mos Def’s character Edward likes to say. When stars agree to dress down, the results are usually positive.

Do you know who Mos Def is? A kind of intellectual hip-hop performance artist, Dante Smith (real name) has sort of percolated near the top of his craft for some time and not quite broken through. This is despite raves for a turn on Broadway in "Top Dog/Underdog" and for his albums and live shows.

In "16 Blocks," as Willis’ charge —- a prisoner who is going to testify in front of a grand jury about dirty cops — Mos almost looks like he’s going to play the Joe Pesci part from "Lethal Weapon."

But then he makes Edward all his own, totally believable, sympathetic and likeable. He also has an elusive charm punctuated by a wide, mischievous grin. He keeps Bruce Willis so distracted from being Bruce Willis that the whole movie tips over in a disarming way. Maybe this is it for Mos Def, his big break. I sure hope so.

Warner Bros. decided not to invite press to the after party last night, so I couldn’t really ask Willis or Mos Def anything about this movie. Donner spent some time accepting kudos in the Ziegfeld lobby after the screening, and he deserved them.

"16 Blocks" is gritty and funny, with sharp editing and cinematography. Richard Wenk’s screenplay is reminiscent of Clint Eastwood’s "The Gauntlet" and countless other cop-hostage tales, but it rises above cliché often enough that you’re completely drawn in.

And David Morse (you know him from TV’s "St. Elsewhere" and "Hack," and "The Green Mile") makes the most compelling, multidimensional villain we’ve seen in a long time.

Jacko Never Gave Up Nation of Islam Ties

Michael Jackson never did give up his ties to the Nation of Islam, even though he was thought to have done so before his trial began in January 2005.

Jackson’s former Neverland Ranch manager Joe Marcus told quite an interesting story in a deposition he gave earlier this month in the lawsuit between Jackson associate Marc Schaffel and the singer.

According to sources, Marcus said in the deposition that when Santa Barbara authorities raided Neverland for a second time, in December 2004, they left behind a sealed envelope filled with cash which was in a safe. Marcus said that Jackson told him to deliver the money to Leonard Searcy, aka Leonard Muhammad, at a Beverly Hills hotel.

Muhammad, the son-in-law of Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, had taken over Jackson’s business affairs and security in December 2003 at the request of Jackson’s brother, Jermaine. That was less than a month after Jackson had been arrested for child molestation.

For months, Jackson’s advisers and many family members and friends were cut off from the singer by Muhammad.

That triggered a number of things, including the assertion by Jackson’s ex-wife, Debbie Rowe, that she was concerned about her kids being near members of the NOI because she had converted to Judaism and considered them Jewish. That claim contributed to Rowe regaining her parental rights in family court.

Marcus also confirmed that no one at Neverland had been paid in six weeks (this was back on Feb. 1) and that he had moved to Arizona —- something we’d reported earlier. The employees to this day have not received paychecks since Dec. 23, 2005.

That Jackson was still sending money to the NOI in December 2004 comes as a surprise. On April 27, 2004, I wrote in this space that Jackson had allowed his brother Randy and sketchy attorney Brian Oxman to remove Leonard Muhammad and the NOI from Jackson’s world.

But now with Marcus’s revelations, it seems that Michael still trusted or at least owed money to Leonard Muhammad six months later.

Coincidentally, it was Jermaine Jackson, Michael’s other brother, who brought the Nation into the pop star’s world. Jermaine spent a lot of his time in 2004-2005 abroad in Bahrain paving the way for Michael to do business there once the trial was over.

Jermaine had plans to become partners with Prince Abdullah of Bahrain in a record label called 2Seas, which would star his brother Michael.

Recently, a Web site for 2Seas Records went “live” at What’s interesting about 2Seas is that the Web site was registered back in November 2004, well before Jackson’s trial started.

It would seem that Prince Abdullah had been planning it right along. But why? And how? All we can figure is that Jermaine Jackson’s long stays in Bahrain around that time, combined with his interest in all things Muslim, made this possible.

The first record scheduled for 2Seas is Jackson’s B-list charity single, “I Have This Dream,” which will purportedly benefit survivors of Hurricane Katrina.

The record, which may now have some kind of work on it by Kanye West, still hasn’t come out. The 2Seas Web site has no information about the actual record, but it does promise a lot. “In a time of devastating catastrophe, music to heal the pain. 2 Seas Records: No challenge is too great. Putting people first.”

God Save the Rock Hall

Maybe you’ve heard: the Sex Pistols have turned down their Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction. They sent a really nasty handwritten note to the board, reiterating twice: “Were [sic] not coming.”

Like anyone cares. This was amusing in 1977.

In other news, Oscar ballots are due today at the Academy. If you don’t know which animated short should win, it’s too late now…

What’s the lunch hot spot in New York on a Saturday? Try Fred’s at Barney’s on Madison Avenue. A chunk of Ralph Lauren’s family ate there last Saturday, including his nephew Greg, the artist…

At another table: sultry singer Kim Garfunkel, married to Art, and their 15-year-old son James … Marty Bandier, the esteemed head of EMI Music Publishing … publicist Judith Agisim, on her way back to the gym … London Daily Mail gossip columnist Baz Bamigboye … and Showtime’s much-liked chairman and CEO Matt Blank with wife Susan, enjoying a short break from his hits like "Weeds" and "The L Word"…

Last: a fond farewell to three extraordinarily talented TV and film stars who populated our childhoods: Darren McGavin (in his late career, he was great on "Murphy Brown"); Dennis Weaver (the cowboys from "Brokeback" could learn a few things from McCloud); and dear Don Knotts, a comic genius. We took him for granted, but his work as Barney Fife was really masterful, and it will outlive most everything on television today…