From the get-go, everything about Brian Kirk’s 21 Bridges feels painfully out of date, and culturally out of place. A police drama bordering itself on unstable confusion as it shoehorns multiple subplots and lingers on a bittersweet moral lesson on who we could name a hero and a villain, and whom we could trust with a badge. Perhaps in the carefree 90s, it would’ve launched a series of films with Denzel Washington as the star. In his place, however, we get Black Panther’s Chadwick Boseman in the lead, working alongside fellow MCU shepherds Joe and Anthony Russo, the trio acting as co-producers. Why they’d lend their services to a film as generic as it is blindly spectacular would be beyond my level of cinematic comprehension. And for any extravagance it proposes, a metric ton of mediocre clichés are waiting impatiently to follow.
Boseman portrays veteran NYPD detective Andre Davis, an officer with a bit of a guilty conscience, but also an itchy trigger finger. At least he’s thoughtful about the times where he does have to withdraw a gun. Ever since the passing of his father, also a cop, murdered at the hands of misguided drug-dealers, Andre was always determined to follow in those footsteps, and maintain a certain dominance in withholding the law. Such an upstanding level of forward-thinking is, like many a cop movie plot, tested greatly when a pair of skittish robbers (Stephan James and Taylor Kitsch) make a quick getaway after killing seven officers, and a nameless civilian assumedly part of the deal, after a failed cocaine heist.
Of course, the precinct captain (J.K. Simmons with an unconvincing Brooklyn accent) is livid but wastes no time entrusting Davis and bullish partner Frankie Burns (an acceptably decent Sienna Miller) to the case, allowing them full resources from the PD to catch the perps. Trusting his own instincts, Davis sees only one solution, ultimately alluding to the title. Block all the bridges, halt all public transportation in and out of Manhattan, and ensure they’re caught before the morning traffic flow picks up at 5 AM. A pretty simple request, and somehow astonishing to see a police force so willing to enact upon it, a meager manhunt with all hands on deck. Cheesy action movie fodder at its most satisfying.
As that begins to run on its own power, TV-based director Kirk, and scribes Adam Mervis (The Philly Kid) and Matthew Michael Carnahan (Deepwater Horizon) attempt to shoehorn in much more than perhaps most casual moviegoers can handle in their action flick. While still being one that could belong best in a bygone era, we’re bound deep into an adjunct reality where the suspects, shaking their heads over their consequences, make a psychological turn of the tables for Davis and Burns, where the killers come off as the victims in a slightly bigger plot, where perhaps the entire police force, and namely the entire city is a possible suspect to something rather unexpected. The residents of which, we simply don’t see much of during the brisk 100 minutes. Quick pacing allows this bit of mediocrity to fly by quickly. Not to mention, it’s apparently more cost-effective to shoot your night scenes around Philly these days.
When the plot gets overstuffed, the effect becomes a little bit lost upon itself. Kirk is a little bit hesitant in only the second feature of his career, his first to be chiefly handled by an American distributor. I will not expect a career in films to be launched here for Kirk, but he gets the job done. He’s no stranger to tense police drama, having had experience with gigs on Luther and Boardwalk Empire, to name a pair of examples. And yet, his own direction can’t balance the raw insanity of the film’s plot with Boseman’s built-in assertiveness. Not unlike his roles in Panther, Marshall and Get on Up, he easily commands the screen at every possible moment, not wasting an ounce of energy, always focused by his precise goals. And yet the question of his character’s moral figure seems hellbent on souring that commanding presence. Almost to the point where uncertainty sinks in on what kind of character he’s truly playing.
Paired up with Miller (last seen theatrically in the under-the-radar American Woman), the duo is pulled about from scene to scene, from location to location, with a rather quick pace. Almost as if our patience would soon be running thin. And that’s perhaps accurate if the bonus 15 minutes tacked on just as thematic events appear to be wrapping up is an indicator of that hesitant overstuffing. We as the audience, ultimately, are thrown about, possibly experiencing severe whiplash as we run about in the supposed cat-and-mouse chase throughout.
As interesting as seeing Boseman challenge his ethics would be, along with James (a pure delight since Beale Street) and Kitsch furthering themselves with their own moral upstanding, the rest of the plot is needlessly slapdash and a bit of an afterthought. Where we don’t see much on the concept of race, nor much that could be considered accurate about policing. Could any of them be considered a traditional hero, therefore? Honestly, I’d need more convincing. That, in turn, leaves plenty of dots unconnected, and a few character arcs underdeveloped. How do you justify the presence of the incredibly awesome Keith David when he’s only around for maybe half a scene, and he doesn’t return to contribute anything else for officer Davis to build on? You cannot, unfortunately.
We’ve seen a glut of films that seem to pose racial profiling and mixing it with corrupt policing. After the jittery awkwardness of Black and Blue, I was naturally exhausted by seeing another film that mirrors the same plot beats but takes it nearly to Schwarzenegger-level insanity. But sadly, not to where the film could benefit in any manner. Again, Boseman is decent but undercooked, unconvinced of any violent tendencies being alluded. And the concept of how far and how deep we can perceive ethical boundaries in society until we must ignore them, that could’ve been better expanded. Perhaps if it were to connect deeper with Andre and his father, I’d have liked to see that. Unfortunately, 21 Bridges can’t fulfill any of these criteria, barely missing the mark and settling for just being below-average. And when it does eventually drop a big bomb of surprise, it is simply too late for the viewer. Boseman could do better, audiences could do much better with their corruption dramas. And perhaps some police forces could do better when the trust we place in those who protect us is challenged, but not radically. And sadly, not as critically either. (D+; 2.5/5 Horns Up!)
21 Bridges opens in most area theaters this weekend; rated R for violence and language throughout; 100 minutes.