'21 Bridges': No Masks, No Capes, Just an Old-school Cop Thriller

'21 Bridges' aims to be a police action thriller in the spirit of 1990s films like 'Heat' and 'Cop Land.' It succeeds, even though all the twists and turns are familiar

Chadwick Boseman in “21 Bridges.”
Matt Kennedy / Courtesy of STX films

Hollywood likes to play it safe. In 2019, that means serving up familiar brands, superhero universes and true stories. No little gumption is required to make a big-budget police thriller in the 21st century. The genre is alive and kicking, maybe more than ever, but it’s been imprisoned on the small screen. The prevailing view in the studios and among producers is that viewers won’t get up from the sofa to see a detective investigate a murder. But a new film, “21 Bridges,” displays a worthy aspiration to return to heroic protagonists who are earthbound and don’t wear a mask or a cape.

It’s tempting to attribute this desire for a break from superheroes to the producers Anthony and Joe Russo, in light of their recent chain of movies. In fact, “21 Bridges” is the Russo brothers’ first film following four in a row that take place in the Marvel Studios universe – two with Captain America and the last two Avengers episodes. On the set of “Avengers: Endgame” they found Chadwick Boseman, whose filmography mirrors the spirit of the times: four Marvel movies as the Black Panther, as well as portrayals of real people, such as Thurgood Marshall, the first black Supreme Court justice (“Marshall”); Jackie Robinson, the first black baseball player in the Major Leagues (“42”); and the singer James Brown (“Get on Up”). To direct “21 Bridges,” the Russo brothers chose Brian Kirk, whose first movie this is, though he has experience in large-scale television productions such as “Game of Thrones” and police series, like “Luther.”

The story opens with a fine scene of the funeral of a New York police officer who was killed in the line of duty. Unlike the usually exaggerated use of drones these days, the camera’s movement here vividly reflects the formative trauma of the officer’s young son. Nineteen years later, the boy, Andre Davis, has become a militant, provocative detective. We see him in the midst of an Internal Affairs investigation, lacking the strength and patience to explain to bureaucrats why, for the seventh time, he has shot a suspect – although most policemen never shoot anyone in their entire career. The investigators try to prove that Davis is quick on the trigger, but Davis is adamant that he has never shot first. Cops, like most people, are simply scared, he says.

This is followed immediately by a night robbery scene that is presented from the viewpoint of two murderous thieves, who nevertheless stir empathy – Ray (Taylor Kitsch) and his buddy, Michael (Stephan James). They were hired to loot a cache of drugs hidden in the cellar of a restaurant, but something in the robbery feels wrong to them. There are far too many drugs, and policemen pop up out of nowhere and for no good reason. Ray and Michael, two former combat soldiers, react as though they were back in Kabul. In the ensuing gun battle, they kill eight policemen and make off with the drugs.

Precisely because of the problematic image, Davis, a bit of a Dirty Harry, is assigned to the case, along with a narcotics detective, Frankie (Sienna Miller). It’s late, and the mayor, too, is concerned that the killers will escape. Davis suggests an extreme idea: a lockdown of Manhattan. No one comes or goes via bridges, tunnels or trains. The request is approved, at least until sunrise, leaving Davis and Frankie four hours to conduct the manhunt, with the aid of uniformed police and helicopters. The plot swings back and forth between detectives and robbers, as the noose tightens quickly, at times incredulously.

Superhero in uniform

This may be a police thriller, but Davis tends to comport himself less like a detective and more like a superhero. He acts independently in a way that echoes thousands of detectives and gunfighters we’ve seen before, but he draws conclusions almost superhumanly. Fragments of evidence come together thanks to his analytical skills – which might have been impressive if Sherlock Holmes, as played by Benedict Cumberbatch, hadn’t already done it and given rise to a host of imitators (Detective Davis among them). The director builds up tension with measured proficiency, and Boseman delivers the goods, but Kirk’s hands seem to be tied by the script. Hints are scattered intelligently and become clear methodically and gradually, but anyone who has ever seen a police thriller will recognize every twist and turn.

With such a predictable plot, it’s quite surprising that the movie isn’t even more disappointing. Still, the familiarity of the situations doesn’t deliver a mortal blow to our being drawn into the story. Boseman brings the quiet charisma with which he imbued T’Challa in “Black Panther,” a quality that serves him as a kind of superhero in uniform. Miller, who has a hard time transcending the functional role she’s been given, delivers one of her unimpressive forgettable performances, with the bonus of a strained New York accent. The two thieves are an excellent addition that enriches the picture, but here, too, acting skills can’t really compensate for the script. Kitsch is persuasive as a tormented killer, and Stephan James even more as his conscience-ridden partner. When we add to this mix J.K. Simmons as chief of police, “21 Bridges” turns out to be a movie with a talented cast that doesn’t have enough going for it. Great ammo, no gun.

Kirk doesn’t use his first directorial effort to take genuine chances. He lacks a distinctive touch or style capable of imbuing the flat screenplay with heft. This is a trap that sometimes snares directors who arrive straight from the television industry, where the scriptwriters and producers set the tone.

When the producers, the brothers Russo, are very involved, the script also has a familiar echo. If the script stratagems are predictable, the dialogue is unsettling in a different way. The impression viewers are left with is that the writers, Adam Mervis and Matthew Michael Carnahan, have little faith in moviegoers’ intelligence. After every action, the character appears to explain what he did, why he did it and what the next goal is. They go out of their way to bury every nuance and turn every subtext into a declaration. Even the drowsiest viewer will always remain in the loop. This is an appallingly disturbing stylistic choice, particularly when the plot in any case insists on painting by numbers and adhering to the genre’s conventions.

Even so, it’s worth taking note of the Manhattan lockdown: It’s definitely a gimmick, but within the range of gimmicks it’s one of the good ones. Its effectiveness lies less in creating a frame story for a cat-and-mouse game, and still less in creating an atmosphere of panic in all the characters. The dramatic infrastructure effectively generates an atmosphere of claustrophobia and suffocation with the presence of security forces that impose a curfew on a civilian population. Images of bridges and tunnels blocked by people in uniform are intended to produce antidemocratic associations. The Irish director noted in an interview that his reaction to such incidents is unusual, at least when compared to that of Americans: “Weirdly, I’d say [it recalls] growing up as a kid in Northern Ireland at a time when it was quite a militarized society and there were a lot of police and army on the streets.” Urban lockdown, barriers and security forces with weapons at the ready in city centers are a familiar sight in certain other countries, too.

“21 Bridges” strives to be an old-school police action thriller, in the spirit of 1990s films such as “Heat” and “Cop Land.” And it succeeds, for good and for ill. Despite its many problems, it’s an interesting attempt to provide a contemporary interpretation of an old, familiar genre, without straying out of the box. In the light of current movie offerings, there is something refreshing about a police thriller that receives cinema-scale treatment and budgeting. Despite an excessively predictable script, which is not atoned for by the direction, Boseman and a mostly excellent cast make the viewing enjoyable – even if you might have preferred watching from the sofa.