I admit I had no intention of watching 21 Bridges after seeing its trailer. An NYPD detective ends up getting more than he bargained for when he leads a citywide manhunt for two “cop killers” in Manhattan. Even though he thinks he’s chasing the bad guys, the real bad guys are actually on his team (surprise surprise). It’s the type of film you’ve seen a million times on DVD. However, I found myself sitting in a mostly empty cinema watching this film directed by Brian Kirk (Penny Dreadful, Game of Thrones) go through the usual tropes for this genre and found myself surprisingly entertained. Even though it’s not a great movie, it’s not bad either.
Young Andre Davis (Christian Isaiah) attends the funeral of his police officer father who was killed by a junkee while on duty. It sets up the motivation for the adult Andre Davis (Chadwick Boseman) who grows up to be a police detective with a reputation for killing “cop killers”. After being interrogated by Internal Affairs for his history of lethal force over the course of his career, Davis is called in to a brutal crime scene in the middle of the night where eight police officers have been murdered.
In what appears to be a robbery gone wrong, Davis realizes there’s more to this crime than initially assessed and shuts down all the bridges, tunnels, train lines and river crossings to prevent the criminals from leaving Manhattan. The FBI have given him a limited number of hours before they need to reopen all ways into and out of the island so the clock is ticking.
While Davis is forced to team up with narcotics detective Frankie Burns (Sienna Miller), the two small-time criminals and former war veterans responsible for the carnage, Michael Trujillo (Stephan James) and Ray Jackson (Taylor Kitsch) are doing all they can to stay alive from law enforcement out for blood. After accidentally stumbling across a much larger stash of cocaine than they were initially expecting and having to kill the police officers who were not supposed to be at the robbery site, the two are forced to go even further outside their comfort zone if they are to escape Manhattan alive.
But just like Davis, they are embroiled in a large and unexpected conspiracy that makes them the biggest targets in New York City. As time passes and the law closes in with no intent of bringing them in alive, their only hope for survival and for the truth to come out will be at the hands of the lead cop whose reputation is built around killing “cop killers”.
Chadwick Boseman isn’t a strong leading man. He’s not bad, but there’s nothing special about him. He was bland in Black Panther (yeah, I said it) and he’s bland in 21 Bridges. He says the lines and he does the running and jumping over things, etc. But there’s no star quality there. I really didn’t care if he caught the bad guys or not. In his defense, his character and the story arc aren’t very interesting or inspiring. Detective Davis is mostly reactive, playing catch up to the events unfolding around him and is constantly one step behind the corrupt officers he works with.
I kept waiting for him to step up and do something major as his reputation begs for, but nothing ever eventuates. A major part of this problem is that the interesting story doesn’t revolve around his character, but the two criminals who are in way over their heads.
Stephan James and Taylor Kitsch are the two stand-out actors in a very average and cliched story. James is perfect as Michael Trujillo, the intelligent, less aggressive partner to the violent, PTSD traumatized Ray Jackson played by Kitsch. Early on Trujillo realizes something is wrong with their heist and they need to bail out before things escalate. But not being as strong of character as Jackson, Trujillo is swept up in the violent carnage that soon follows and must try to curb Jackson’s violent recklessness so they can try to salvage their situation. James gives a strong performance of a person who wishes he could undo all that has happened and just wants a better life.
Kitsch is cast well opposite James as the cold-blooded, reckless but always on the move ex veteran who is skilled in the art of killing without hesitation. He will stop at nothing to achieve his goals but starts to unwind emotionally when things continue to not go to plan. Luckily his friend Trujillo is able to step up and make up for the diplomatic skills he lacks. Kitsch does a solid job of embodying a person who does well in the thick of violence but does poorly when the bullets stop flying and real decisions need to be made with spoken words instead of an itchy trigger finger.
Brian Kirk has directed a well-made but mediocre cop film. Despite its strong production values (the sound design is fantastic), the story and hero are nothing special. We can see the twists and turns coming a mile away.
What it comes down to is that the story by Adam Mervis (who also co-wrote the screenplay with Matthew Michael Carnahan) focuses on the wrong characters. The more interesting story really belongs Michael Trujillo and Ray Jackson – the two small-time criminals who end up in the biggest manhunt in recent history. Their characters are more fleshed out where you almost feel sorry for them to some degree, despite their bad actions. They seem to be the two actors who received the most amount of direction because they give very strong performances while being surrounded by two dimensional crooked cops that are simply out to cover up their criminal activities under the guise of helping those who protect the public.
21 Bridges is a pretty average movie even by the standards of the genre, but with a great soundtrack that pumps up the atmosphere and gives it momentum, it’s entertaining enough if you’ve got nothing else to watch. Chadwick Boseman is miscast as a compelling lead in a story that never quite suits his character, which only makes a predictable plot all the more so. There isn’t much here to recommend if you’re looking for genuine surprises or detective thrills, but I can see this working for those with lowered expectations as a late-night rental.