Produced by its star, Chadwick Boseman, and the Russo Brothers, who directed him in three Marvel entries including Avengers: Endgame, 21 Bridges is directed by Brian Kirk, a Game of Thrones alumnus. The title is a reference to the number of bridges linking to the island of Manhattan, in New York.
Boseman plays Detective Andre Davis, a cop committed to becoming a cop ever since his father, also an officer, was killed by three men in the course of doing his job, when Andre was only thirteen. Nineteen years later, Andre has built a reputation as a fine police officer, but one with a tendency for killing perpetrators in the course of his duties. The film makes clear – sadly too clear – that his seven shootings have all been justified.
Living with his unwell mother, Andre is a man who takes his duties in life seriously. That is about the extent of the character work offered by the film. Soon after midnight one evening, small time criminals and former war veterans Michael Trujillo and Ray Jackson (Stephen James and Taylor Kitsch) perform a heist on a winery in order to steal 30kgs of uncut heroin. In the course of this, they realise there is actually closer to 300kgs there. With the men deciding to take 50kgs, the NYPD turn up, leading to the murder of both the winery owner and seven cops (an eighth dies later in hospital). Called to the scene, Andre is urged by Captain Matt McKenna (JK Simmons) to kill the perpetrators and spare the families of the slain cops the pain of a trial, then years of parole hearings.
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Examining the details of the heist, and the realities of attempting to pass off 50kgs of heroin in New York, Davis determines they will have headed for Manhattan. Paired with narcotics specialist Frankie Burns (Sienna Miller), he gains permission for the bridges and tunnels into and out of the island to be closed down until 5am (it’s around 1am at that point), and for the NYPD to flood the area with all available cops. It then becomes a race against time to bring down the two criminals, before the bridges have to be reopened and the men are lost forever.
So far, so TV. 21 Bridges is an attractively shot film, but a work that takes over an hour to give any reasons why this was such a passion project for its star and his long-time collaborators. It’s a standard procedural, until late in its second act, when it becomes clear that the heist wasn’t exactly as it appeared. At which point there is at least some pay-off to the demeanour in act one of the McKenna character – another terrific turn by Simmons.
The biggest problem the film has is its general lack of inspiration. We see Davis with Internal Affairs, as a clear device to add shades of grey to his character, but this simply doesn’t work: from the prologue where we see his childhood self form his sense of duty, in pain and adversity, this is an A-class cop of impeccable character. One of the slain officers was at the academy with him, telling us his career has advanced very quickly when compared to his contemporaries. His scene at his apartment showing us his devotion to his mother and to his father’s memory undercuts any sense this man is anything other than committed to doing the right thing at all times.
When on the case, Andre makes all the correct decisions, and works the crime scene with a talent and level of deduction that would make Sherlock Holmes proud. Once paired with Burns, we get little real interplay between them, and her character work – at least before the final reel – consists of little more than allusions to a daughter at home. Nothing about our protagonists is particularly stand-out, memorable, or worthy of discussion.
The antagonists are a little more interesting. James’ Michael character is unsure of himself, in over his head and in thrall to Ray in misguided loyalty, due to Ray’s friendship with Michael’s late brother – also a soldier. There are references both to Michael’s dishonorable discharge from the Marines, as well as a suggestion that he could have lived a better life had he been born somewhere else. There’s some potential for social commentary here, as there is in the idea later on that NYPD officers serve a city they both can’t afford, and that doesn’t appreciate them. Neither are particularly well explored in the film’s brisk 99 minute running time. That said, Michael and Ray attempting to deal with the unexpected situation (including a small role for Alexander Siddig as a well-to-do fixer) is probably the most interesting part of the story, and the only sections that really offer any surprise or uncertainty; at least until the late reveal – which many will have seen coming.
In short, 21 Bridges offers nothing new, fresh or unique. It’s entertaining enough, performances are all very strong, and this is another reminder – if we ever needed it – that Chadwick Boseman has plenty of screen presence with which to lead a film. Quite what anyone involved saw as stand-out in this project is a mystery though. Although a high concept idea, the central hook of closing down the island is somewhat ignored, as we don’t really feel the sense, much of the time, of the perpetrators being contained – plus the film gives the uninitiated zero sense of the geography of the island. This is a standard case of hunting bad guys, anchored by a good lead performance wasted on a character not developed beyond showing us his talent and sense of duty. A genuine sense that he might be trigger happy would have added some much needed tension and uncertainty to a film that just plays like a flat procedural with occasional foot chases. A decent enough watch, 21 Bridges just lacks the originality that its concept would imply it might have, and, and such, it simply doesn’t stand-out as something that was begging to be made.