With today’s biggest movies often taking us to distant galaxies or featuring superhuman brawls, it doesn’t seem often that we get big budget, glossy films about… regular people. Where’s the tense thriller about plumbers rushing around in an epidemic of faulty pipes? Or the postal worker stressed out during the holiday rush? In an effort to shine light on our everyday superheroes, the Anthony and Joe Russo (you might know those names from some Marvel movie) have helped to assemble 21 Bridges, a movie about a good cop in a rough city. Where’s Captain America when you need him?
It might not exactly be fair to open with the Russos though 21 Bridges‘ promotional material will let you know, again and again, the Marvelous brothers’ involvement. Produced by the Russos, Bridges is helmed by Brian Kirk, whose previous work as a director includes some early Game of Thrones episodes (including that great one where Ned and Jaime throw down) and Penny Dreadful, as well as several other reputable series. Smaller pickings than the fate of the galaxy then, for a leaner and meaner kind of story.
Director: Brian Kirk
Release Date:: November 22, 2019
21 Bridges zeroes in on Andre Davis (Chadwick Boseman), an NYPD cop whose track record for fatally-wounded perps would make Harry Callahan blush. Davis bleeds blue, the son of a slain officer and seemingly a devout Christian, with a sense of justice to fuel his fury. Boseman lives in the role well, and though 21 Bridges spends nearly all 100 of its minutes moving the story along, minding its characters as pawns, he maintains an intensity as Davis that compliments some of the melodrama and utter gravity of the film.
Grave indeed, Bridges hinges upon a brutal shootout after a cocaine heist goes--how else?--terribly wrong. Michael and Ray (Stephan James and Taylor Kitsch) are a pair of heavily-armed crooks whose midnight coke pickup is interrupted by a quartet of cops which soon doubles, and all eight are killed in a firefight with the criminals. The mass slaughter of the officers prompts drastic measures, where the titular bridges linking Manhattan are closed off, the rivers patrolled, and the city streets flooded with patrol cars and helicopters. You got yourselves a regular manhunt.
I mentioned Bridges adherence to its story before its characters, and the plot moves quickly from the outset of the carnage, though its sound and fury isn’t necessarily anything new. 21 Bridges is genre fare, through and through. It’s a crime thriller whose beats are telegraphed way in advance (how exactly did those cops show up on schedule for the coke bust; could they have already known..?) and its characters fill roles we’ve seen before, though we’re treated to heavy hitters like JK Simmons and Keith David lending their talents to tired material. This is a movie where characters’ dying words are passwords to crucial information, and sometimes things happen conveniently so that we can stretch another ten minutes out of the film to catch up with our perps. But honestly? 21 Bridges makes it work.
Opening with the memorial for Andre’s father, a stormy New York service steeped in Old Testament fire and fury, 21 Bridges doesn’t exercise a need to be clever or reinvent the crime thriller wheel. It just plays the hits with a straight face, delivering visceral action and just enough intrigue to parse out the shootouts. Call it Michael Mann for the Call of Duty crowd.
Without diving deep into Bridges‘ later-act developments, that intrigue gives way to more tropes of the genre, where crooked cops start to make the killer criminals seem a little less maniacal. We’ve seen other films this year like Black and Blue and Dragged Across Concrete tackle the morality of corrupt police officers with degrees of success and failure. Throwing its badge into the ring, 21 Bridges in no way absolves its catalyst cop killers of their murders, instead taking the time to indict both the system and the problems it creates, with Andre blazing a righteous path right through them all. With a little more nuance in its leading man, Andre Davis might have gone down as a more memorable no-nonsense copper in the style of Vincent Hanna or Popeye Doyle. As it stands though the script by Adam Mervis and Matthew Michael Carnahan leaves Boseman to do all of the heavy lifting, working with what he’s got.
Predictability is perhaps what halts the excitement most here, with the narrative playing out exactly as you’d expect it to, hitting on police procedural beats and lines that feel ripped from your own idea of what a “cop movie” is all about. The local PD and the FBI squabble over who takes the lead; the crooks haggle with other New York lowlifes to scrape by; Davis flies solo, taking the manhunt in stride. There’s nothing surprising about this night in the Big Apple.
It’s a saving grace then that technically 21 Bridges serves as competent suspense-fare, with the entire film reeking of high production values. Perhaps what the Russos bring to the table is a budget then, with their large-scale sensibilities applied to a grounded story. New York streets become setpieces in themselves, lit up in the dead of night by flashing patrol cars and muzzle flashes. And sonically, the bullets hit. Alex Belcher and Henry Jackman’s score is grand and melodramatic, but reels itself in when the guns start to go off.
It’s too bad that 21 Bridges doesn’t transcend its genre, but isn’t something we can blame the film for. Audiences have been spoiled by the John Wicks and Mission: Impossibles of the action thriller genre. Films that pull the rug out from under our expectations and rise above the predictable routine that keeps Hollywood and the film industry worldwide afloat. 21 Bridges is not one of those films. But in maintaining a steady stream of dependable, well-made films to keep the theatrical experience alive and well, you could do far worse than dive into 21 Bridges. It’s smarter than some summer bullet-fests yet still stuck in its role. If the cops are meant to protect and serve, maybe 21 Bridges exists to buckle up and entertain. And sometimes, that’s just enough.