The reduce phase has 3 steps: shuffle, sort, reduce. Shuffle is where the data is collected by the reducer from each mapper. This can happen while mappers are generating data since it is only a data transfer. On the other hand, sort and reduce can only start once all the mappers are done. You can tell which one MapReduce is doing by looking at the reducer completion percentage: 0-33% means its doing shuffle, 34-66% is sort, 67%-100% is reduce. This is why your reducers will sometimes seem "stuck" at 33%-- it's waiting for mappers to finish.
The reduce phase can start long before a reducer is called. As soon as "a" mapper finishes the job, the generated data undergoes some sorting and shuffling (which includes call to combiner and partitioner). The reducer "phase" kicks in the moment post mapper data processing is started. As these processing is done, you will see progress in reducers percentage. However, none of the reducers have been called in yet.
You can customize when the reducers startup by changing the default value of mapred.reduce.slowstart.completed.maps in mapred-site.xml. A value of 1.00 will wait for all the mappers to finish before starting the reducers. A value of 0.0 will start the reducers right away. A value of 0.5 will start the reducers when half of the mappers are complete. You can also change mapred.reduce.slowstart.completed.maps on a job-by-job basis. In new versions of Hadoop (at least 2.4.1) the parameter is called is mapreduce.job.reduce.slowstart.completedmaps.
I hope this answer helps :)