21 bridges review

Hollywood doesn’t pump-out many non-franchise action-thrillers these days, so perhaps we should be thankful for 21 Bridges. And perhaps that this movie hails from producers The Russo Brothers, a duo responsible for so many blockbuster franchise movies, is a good sign. But lordy, does the end result have to be so lifeless?

21 Bridges is a yawn-inducing long night’s journey into day, where a supposedly hotshot detective doesn’t pick up on big twists we spot a mile away, and where characters fire off dialogue that’s supposed to be weighty but comes out clunky. You get the sense that 21 Bridges wants to be a throwback to old school police action-thrillers, but you’d be better off avoiding this and renting one of those old school flicks instead.

There’s a good movie lurking in 21 Bridges. It’s about two small-time crooks – one of them (Taylor Kitsch) unafraid to get his hands bloody, the other (Stephan James), his far more innocent surrogate brother along for the ride – who get more than they bargained for during what should’ve been a routine score, and then spend the rest of the night trying to get the hell out of New York City alive. A film focused entirely on these flawed characters, drawing us into their frantic headspace, could be quite gritty and thrilling.

Unfortunately, 21 Bridges only wants to use these characters as pawns to set in motion a monotonous cops-and-robbers chase flick, with a bland hero front and center. Chadwick Boseman is that hero, and to be fair, Boseman himself isn’t bland. Indeed, the Black Panther actor has a commanding screen presence, and he does the best he can with what he’s given. Unfortunately, he’s not given much. Boseman is NYPD Detective Andre Davis, a trigger-happy lawman who has more than half-a-dozen kills under his belt. These shootings often land him in the middle of Internal Affairs investigations, but he always walks away clean. A moody, cinematically engaging prologue – dig that one aerial shot pointing straight down at a sea of uniformed cops all saluting at the same time – sets up Andre’s troubled past: his pop was a cop, and the old man died in the line of duty.

The dead father story, and Andre’s propensity for blowing away crooks, is meant to paint him as something of a damaged antihero on a path towards redemption. But here’s the thing: other than a brief scene in which IA officers comment on all the people Andre’s shot, we never get the sense that he’s all that dangerous. In fact, he’s the most level-headed, non-violent cop in the whole movie. You can’t help but think there’s a much darker version of this movie floating around out there, one in which Andre really is presented as something of a bad apple who slowly finds his way. Perhaps – and this is pure speculation – someone, somewhere, was afraid of alienating viewers with an “unlikable” protagonist, and watered Andre down to the lifeless character he is here.

As 21 Bridges kicks-off,  the two crooks played by Kitsch and James set out to steal some cocaine being stored in a restaurant safe. They were lead to believe that there were about 30 kilos of coke in the joint, but there turns out to be 300 – and it’s pure and uncut. Things go south from there with a horde of cops showing up only to be promptly gunned-down.

With that many dead police officers on hand, a rough a tough NYPD captain (J. K. Simmons, playing the type of growly hardass he can play in his sleep at this point) wants bloody revenge, and he makes it abundantly clear that he really, really wants Andre to kill the suspects rather than take them in alive. And even though Andre has already been established as someone who shoots first and asks questions later, he appears very hesitant to commit to such a deed. Complicating matters further, Andre ends up partnered-up with narcotics detective Frankie Burns, played Sienna Miller, who really leans into the New Yawk accent here.

Whenever 21 Bridges spends time with Kitsch and James’ fleeing crooks, it pops. Andre orders Manhattan be completely shut down – all 21 bridges, and rivers and tunnels, too – which means getting out of town is going to be difficult. As a result, the killers find themselves hopping from one strange underground location to the next, and the script, by Adam Mervis and Matthew Michael Carnahan, does a fine job establishing an entire seedy underworld with its own set of rules. Unfortunately, rather than stick with this far more interesting storyline, 21 Bridges has to keep cutting back to Andre, because he’s our lead.

Director Brian Kirk and cinematographer Paul Cameron do well painting the nighttime city in damp, inky shadows, and earlier shots of a hazy New York City skyline at sunset are appropriately ominous and foreboding. But whenever Kirk has to get into the action, 21 Bridges fizzles. Shootouts just kind of happen, with no clear indication of who is shooting whom and from where. Things get particularly ludicrous near the climax in which characters are able to dodge gunfire raining down from helicopters as if it were the easiest thing in the world.

In this age where superhero cinema dominates everything, we could use a few more throw-back standalone action-thrillers in the same vein as 21 Bridges in movie theaters. But it would be even better if they were actually worth watching, too. I guess these days, beggars can’t be choosers.

/Film Rating: 5 out of 10

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About the Author

Chris Evangelista is a staff writer for /Film. He's contributed to CutPrintFilm, RogerEbert.com, Nerdist, Mashable, and more. Follow him on Twitter @cevangelista413 or email him at chris@chrisevangelista.net