The best thing I can say about the new crime actioner 21 Bridges is that it’s mercifully short, and that even in a subpar film like this, star Chadwick Boseman (Black Panther) has enough built-in intensity and charisma to keep us engaged, if not completely interested in what’s going on around him. In the film (produced by recent Avengers directors Anthony and Joe Russo, directed by Brian Kirk, a TV veteran helming his second feature), Boseman plays NYPD Detective Andre Davis, whose father was killed on the job when he was just a boy and has since made his reputation for being something of a trigger-happy investigator—although he’s quick to mention that all of his shootings have been clean and justified.
When a group of eight police officers are gunned down in Brooklyn by two men attempting to steal a cocaine stash from a drug dealer, Davis is called in by his commanding officer (Keith David) to not only track down the killers but enact his particular brand of justice upon them, thus sparing the families of the dead officers from reliving the incident during a trial or parole hearings. The head of the precinct where all of the dead officers were stationed (played by J.K. Simmons) is confident the job will be handled correctly by Davis, but the fact that the cops were at the location in the first place causes some suspicion in both Davis and a narcotics cop also assigned to the case, Frankie Burns (Sienna Miller, sporting a ridiculous New York accent). After confirmation that the shooters—Michael (Stephan James, from If Beale Street Could Talk) and Ray (Taymor Kitsch)—have retreated into Manhattan, Davis suggest that the only way to catch them is to shut down all gateways in and out of the island—including its 21 bridges—as well as tunnels, subways, trains, and ports.
The more we learn about the shooters, the more interesting the film becomes. They were sent to that location and were expecting only a manageable amount of cocaine to steal, but they found 10 times more than they were expecting. They sell the drugs and are forced to launder the money (with an extravagant launderer played by Alexander Siddig) before they can flee, but the cops always seem to know exactly where they’ll be before they have a chance to regroup and make smarter decisions. But before Davis finally catches up with them, he’s suspicious of the entire evening and even attempts to connect with Michael, who didn’t actually do any of the shooting in the police murders. Meanwhile, every officer in New York seems to be under orders to shoot first and ask questions later.
The deeper into 21 Bridges we get, the more ludicrous the story becomes, until we reach a postscript moment that is virtually impossible to buy. When the film sticks to actual manhunting and real-world investigative work, I was on board, but we’re so busy trying to figure out what’s really going on with seemingly the entire NYPD that it’s tough to ever settle in and just enjoy the human elements of the Davis character. We see a scene early on of him caring for his elderly mother, who seems to be in the early stages of senility, but then we never go back to that or tie his relationship with her into the deeper performance.
Since the film takes place during the course of just a few overnight hours, we also never really get a sense of how disruptive shutting down Manhattan really is, even in the city’s off-peak hours (of which there aren’t really any, let’s be honest). Despite her accent, Miller is actually solid here as the scruffy narc who most other cops think is unstable just because of her line of work. “You can either fight me or use me,” she tells Davis, and he makes the right call. The film doesn’t really have a satisfying payoff—believable or otherwise—and it makes the final sequence feel tagged-on and disconnected from a story that is already shaky to begin with.
Script aside, it’s a competently made movie, and certainly none of the actors falter, even if the plot lets them down. Boseman deserves so much better after his last couple of years in the spotlight, and the fact that his next two movies are an adaptation of an August Wilson play (Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom) and the new Spike Lee film (Da 5 Bloods) gives me hope.
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