Sometimes commitment to a role can make a generic movie slightly better than the viewing experience warrants. To that, I’ll give Chadwick Boseman credit for the effort he puts into 21 Bridges’ formulaic good cop character. But the movie we get is the same police thriller we’ve seen a hundred times over, with the biggest selling point being that all of Manhattan is put under total lockdown. If 21 Bridges was trying to convey a deeper thematic message, it’s bogged down by a lot of wasted actors and twists we can see coming from Brooklyn.
For Boseman’s Andre Davis, being a police officer isn’t just a job but a core part of his DNA. His father, a former cop, was killed in the line of duty and this drives Andre’s moral compass to the fullest, rising up to be a respected NYPD forensic detective with a reputation for “catching cop killers.” He’s also a bit trigger happy, but apart from a police briefing in the opening act, not much of that personality is explored. Not much of any personality is really explored in Andre, to be honest. Apart from one interaction with his mother, presumably suffering from dementia, he’s just “the good cop.”
In fact, the plot can’t even devote 10 minutes to exploring Andre’s personal life before jumping straight into the case. A pair of low-bit thieves named Ray and Michael (played by Taylor Kitsch and Stephan James) rob a stash of cocaine, only to find 300 kilos of the stuff, more than what’s needed for a two-man heist. When the cops arrive at their location, the two kill eight of them and run off. Andre’s called in to investigate the crime scene and his plan to catch the cop killers is, to put it nicely, extreme. Shut down all exit points of Manhattan- bridges, tunnels, rivers, train stations- and box the crooks in. He’s paired with narcotics expert Frankie Burns (American Woman’s Sienna Miller) on behalf of the grieving 85th precinct leader Captain McKenna (J.K. Simmons) and the two are tasked with bringing the perps to extreme justice.
It’s not that simple. At least that’s what I’d say if the plot twists couldn’t be sensed a New York block away. At the very least, I appreciate the intelligence of Ray and Michael’s characters, who come across as smart enough to evade a borough’s worth of cops coming for their heads while covering their tracks. James specifically gives a solid performance of a man who knows full well he’s in over his head in a situation that just doesn’t add up. But everything about what they stumble upon and how Andre figures it out? I was writing down those reveals in my notes before the plot told me. It’s not hard to notice cops showing up to a massive drug stash out of nowhere and not smell something dirty.
What we have is a decently shot, but bland thriller that goes through the motions at the expense of a great cast. Miller, Simmons and even Keith David- all talented people who could easily have done more if the script let them be actual characters. And Boseman, fresh off his MCU fame, lacks the type of moral struggle that made say… T’Challa’s arc in Black Panther worthwhile. He’s the good guy who the script almost never challenged in his convictions, even when larger conspiracies begin to unfold.
Does this film even have anything to say about policework? Not really. The story does show its respect to the badge (an enormous amount of officers show up to young Andre’s dad’s funeral), but there’s nothing a Blue Lives Matter Twitter feed would be able to fetishize against actual claims of racial profiling and police brutality. There’s also nothing addressing racial profiling or the systemic nature of police brutality. You get one line about how these officers put up with crappy rent and injuries in the line of duty to protect “a city that doesn’t even like them,” but we get no understanding of this world’s Manhattan politics to make those claims count. Or rather Philly politics- the ground-level scenes were actually shot in Philadelphia and I’ll admit, it fooled me a bit as a New York City resident. Still, it’s a bit paradoxical to make this esteem for the blue upfront, then have its protagonist deal with fellow cops too eager to wrap this up with lethal force.
You can still watch 21 Bridges, but this is one of those films destined to end up as background TV. It seems more interested in pushing the cat and mouse game across not-Manhattan without doing much to explore the characters pursuing one another nor validating the big selling point. I mean, how many murder cases do you know where things this simple view “locking down all of New York” as the most logical course of action? John Carpenter’s Escape from New York this isn’t.
Verdict: 1.5 out of 5 Stars
All the pushbacks for 21 Bridges’ release date was a sign this film wasn’t impressing much. It’s unoriginal, underdeveloped and wastes a lot of solid talent, not to mention the Russo Brothers as producers. Maybe if Andre used Wakandan tech was used to catch the cop killers, this plot would be a bit more interesting. Or they could have just done something easier and actually built suspense surrounding everyone’s motives.