The ingredients are all there to make 21 Bridges a memorable and exciting throwback to the glorious eighties, to a time when big stars drove high-concept action movies to box office gold. Unfortunately, these ingredients are undercooked.
Chadwick Boseman is back as an Avenger, only this time he’s an avenger in blue, a New York City detective with nine justified killings on his record in just ten years. He’s a cop famous among his own for killing cop killers. It’s in his DNA. You see, his father was a cop, a hero who, just before he died, managed to take down two of the three men responsible for beating him to death.
Things start promisingly enough. Two hired guns, two low-level criminals (Stephen James and Taylor Kitsch), enter a restaurant to rip off a drug dealer. Things immediately get complicated when the gunmen discover this is no low-level street dealer. They’re faced with 300 kilos of uncut cocaine and the realization they are now in way over their heads.
With that desperate and sweaty realization comes another — the fact that they will now have to hide forever. That’s going to take planning and money. But first they have to get out of this restaurant, and between them and a getaway are more than a half-dozen cops.
With frightening and realistic efficiency, the cops go down and the gunmen hit the streets looking to turn their drugs into enough gold to vanish.
Captain McKenna (J.K. Simmons) wants Andre Davis (Boseman) in charge of this hunt, and he doesn’t shy away or even hide his reasoning behind euphemisms or winks. McKenna wants these cop killers hunted and killed, wants their heads on a stick to save the families from endless trials and decades of parole hearings.
Davis is non-committal (a problem I’ll address in a bit), but now it’s time to deliver on the concept. The only way to ensure the cop killers can’t escape is to shut down the island of Manhattan. That means closing all 21 bridges, the train stations, the airports, and the waterways. The mayor agrees. A shelter in place is put into effect. Davis has five hours until the city needs to be brought back to life. The clock is ticking.
Davis is partnered with Frankie Burns (Sienna Miller), a narcotics detective, and off we go…
The problem is not so much Brian Kirk’s direction. The opening shootout and an exciting foot chase that ends on the subway that comes later, are not only nicely staged, there’s none of this heightened reality that plagues so many action scenes these days. This is an action movie grounded in real life, a movie that respects the concept of gravity; and I don’t know about you, but I’m ready for more of that.
The problem is a heavy-handed and insanely predictable screenplay that lacks tension, intelligence, and nuance.
Davis is our hero. He should be at least one step ahead of the audience in unraveling everyone’s agenda. He’s not. The screenplay stubbornly pretends its mystery is a real mystery, that its plot actually twists, when it doesn’t. And this makes Davis look idiotic because he’s the only one oblivious to the obvious.
To be fair, maybe the idea is to let us in on the truth as a means to increase the suspense that comes with the audience being aware of a danger the hero doesn’t see. A variation of Hitchcock’s bomb under the bed. If that’s the goal, it’s a total misfire.
The biggest problem, though, is the character of Andre Davis, who makes no sense. And what a waste of a fine actor with charisma to burn like Boseman. Davis has killed nine people in ten years, but he’s still presented to us as a righteous cop, an honest cop who always does the right thing. What a dull choice, what a terrible decision. If ever a movie called for an anti-hero, a scuffed up, morally compromised cop, a Popeye Doyle, a Nick Conklin, this is it.
And it just makes no sense that an honest cop could commit nine justified killings throughout an entire career, much less ten years. I just can’t understand why they didn’t dirty Davis up a little, why they didn’t compromise him. Instead, he’s a saint. He even cares for his senile mother. This makes him boring, one-dimensional and predictable when he should crackle, when he should have us wondering what the hell he’ll do next, how far he’ll go, or if there’s a point where his blind loyalty can be made to see by a sense of humanity.
Is it possible this was in the original script but removed for woke reasons, because Boseman is black and Twitter will get mad if a black star plays a dirty cop?
There’s no way to now. I wouldn’t be surprised. At the same time, though, to the movie’s credit, despite the subject matter, there’s nothing racial. Other than a funny line about making sure your diction is correct when you call me a “trigger,” race never comes up, and in this day and age, that’s a pleasant surprise.
Also wasted is the great Keith David who, as always, makes a large impression just by being there … and then he inexplicably disappears without a trace. This character is presented to us as a father figure to Davis, the Obi Wan Kenobi who will lead our hero into the light. Instead, poof, he’s gone.
An unfortunate waste of everyone’s time.