Chadwick Boseman Crosses ‘21 Bridges’ Into the World of Recycled Cop Thrillers
“21 Bridges” feels like 21 other movies you’ve seen this year and the year before. It is now Chadwick Boseman’s turn to be that one good cop in New York City who must take on an entire army of corruption, drug dealing and nefarious underground conspiracies. As with many of these throwaway thrillers that emerge in-between prestige dramas and blockbusters with the budgets of small countries, the one saving grace is the excellent cast. Even professionals must master the art of pulling a gun on a bad guy in a subway train.
Boseman plays Andre Davis, a detective being pressured by Internal Affairs over his record of shooting down crooks. As established in the opening scenes, Davis is the son of a respected slain officer, so as he tells it, being a cop is in his DNA. During a late night heist, two would-be professional thieves, Ray (Taylor Kitsch) and Michael (Stephan James), come across a whole wall of cocaine before taking a few kilos and killing 8 police officers in a shootout. Thirsty for revenge, Capt. McKenna (J.K. Simmons) demands Davis show no mercy in going after the two fugitives. Davis is joined by a narcotics detective named, inevitably, Frankie Burns (Sienna Miller). When they get a sense of where Ray and Michael are running Davis has authorities shut down, here it comes, 21 bridges in order to keep them from getting out. But as Davis gets closer to nabbing the fiends he starts making unsettling discoveries of their connections to his own police department.
For director Brian Kirk, “21 Bridges” is that rare instance where moving from TV to feature films feels like a step down. His most notable credits thus far have been for television on major shows like “Game of Thrones” and “Luther.” If those series featured original narrative and visual experiences, “21 Bridges” feels like Kirk simply taking notes from every generic cop thriller. He opens with a young Davis at his father’s funeral. A preacher cites one of those convenient passages in the Bible that sounds like justification for kicking ass. We cut to the present with those familiar overhead pans of New York (although the film was actually shot in Philadelphia). Davis then comes into the story as our essential, stubborn hero, sitting in front of bureaucrats, annoyed at having to explain why he’s shot someone almost annually. Then appear in some dark alley Ray and Michael, driving a shady vehicle, sporting masks and tattoos out of last year’s “Den of Thieves.” Their motivation is so vague it’s confusing when they find 300 kilos of coke but argue about stealing it.
The rest of “21 Bridges” then goes into an odd sort of autopilot where it resorts to shootouts and chases for every plot development, yet gets too muddled and archaic for its own good. The city of kind of shut down, it’s hard to tell how daily life is actually affected by the cops essentially creating a siege, and Davis goes around interrogating suspects and connections to the fugitives. Yet as the conspiracy Davis uncovers becomes apparent, it loses steam. By the end he’s chasing the guys down for some incriminating hard drives, which would be entertaining if they contained something truly explosive. Instead the payoff is an explanation for the plot’s main scheme that will inspire eye rolling. However kudos to writers Adam Mervis and Matthew Michael Carnahan, for using the pressing issue of gentrification as part of the explanation for why the cops in this narrative turn bad. It also feels like a missed opportunity for making a suspense film with more of an edge to its story of the theme had been used more broadly.
There’s not much else to “21 Bridges.” What you get is Chadwick Boseman running through streets, jumping over cars, getting onto subway trains and eventually having the required standoff where two characters raise their guns and dare each other to fire. There’s also the required character who seemed trustworthy, but was far from it. Boseman is taking a break here from being Black Panther in Marvel extravaganzas, playing the straight arrow cop, barely smiling and yelling lines like, “I bet it hurts like a motherfucker!” Because he has presence he pulls off a ridiculous moment where he stares at the true villain of the story and explains his own scheme to him, point by point. One suspects this is meant more for the audience. J.K. Simmons is J.K. Simmons, so he plays McKenna with a blistering toughness. Of course Simmons could make any character sound interesting.
If NYPD corruption is your thing then “21 Bridges” hits every checklist item. At this point filmmakers can make these in their sleep. It’s the same old chase with new faces, and the same old conspiracy we’ve uncovered with countless characters in countless other movies. The thrill is gone.
“21 Bridges” opens Nov. 22 in theaters nationwide.