Movie Review: '21 Bridges'
Solid Chadwick Boseman performance undermined by an underwritten script.
21 Bridge stars Chadwick Boseman as Detective Andre Davis. Detective Davis bleeds blue, the color of law enforcement. His father was a street cop who was murdered on the job. The memory of his father’s funeral looms over Andre’s mind with the words of the Priest making a lasting impression. As the Priest put it, Andre’s father ‘Looked the Devil in the Eye.’ That notion of confronting and stopping evil has driven Andre throughout his life and career.
When we meet the adult Andre, he is in front of the NYPD Internal Affairs Board. He’s recently been involved in a shooting, his seventh such shooting incident in a relatively young career as a detective. Andre is very clear and to the point, each of the men that has shot has been clean and in the line of duty. Whether or not he ends up with any disciplinary action against him is never mentioned again.
When next we see Andre he is called to investigate one of the most frantic and deadly crime scenes in New York City history. At the scene are 7 dead cops with another headed to the hospital in critical condition. The scene is so massive and chaotic that it appears the FBI is about to take it over when Andre manages to convince his superiors to allow him to run things. His plan is to close Manhattan. Lock down the subways, the river, and, most importantly, close all 21 bridges in and out of Manhattan.
Running parallel to Andre’s story is that of the men who are responsible for the deaths of those 7 cops. Stephen James and Taylor Kitsch portray former soldiers turned drug runners, Michael Trujillo and Ray Jackson. On the night of the shooting, Michael and Ray are stealing what they believe to be 30 kilos of cocaine. Instead, they find several million dollars worth of cocaine, a score way over their heads. Ray is eager to take as much as possible while Michael is aware that this is more than just some dealer’s stash.
In the midst of the robbery, cops arrive and that’s where we get back to that massive crime scene. Michael and Ray go on the run with more cocaine than they know what to do with while Andre and his new partner, Detective Frankie Burns (Sienna Miller), track them down using modern technology and good instincts. J.K Simmons rounds out the cast as the Captain of the 85th Precinct, home of the dead cops.
21 Bridges was directed by Brian Kirk, a television directing veteran making his feature directorial debut. Kirk directs the action of 21 Bridges quite well, developing a couple of pulse pounding sequences including a final showdown that is filled with strong tension and well choreographed violence. He appears to have strong chemistry with star Chadwick Boseman, whose physical performance is well captured.
Boseman is undoubtedly the best thing about 21 Bridges. Boseman has a commanding and thoughtful presence. It’s as if you can see his cop instincts at work through Boseman’s face. It’s a full-bodied performance as well, one that updates tough guy cliches for a new era. Instead of a rogue cop who plays by his own rules, Boseman’s detective is a bad-ass within the rules with his moral compass and dedication to being above reproach replacing the cop cliches of ‘screw the rules, I kill who I want’. This is a cop for the post-Ferguson era.
If only that cop were in a better movie. Sadly, 21 Bridges, aside from Boseman and well choreographed violence, is a desperately underwritten movie where logic undermines much of the goodwill that other aspects of the film earn. Take as an example, the final showdown of the movie. I won’t spoil it, but Detective Davis makes a choice here that defies his intelligence and threatens to ruin what is an otherwise excellent piece of tension and suspense.
The final showdown forces Davis to miss important details and ignore his own good judgment in order to get to the wonderful tension and suspense crafted by director Kirk. The script for 21 Bridges appears to be a rewrite or two away from getting to a really great movie. The film needed to fill in the gaps of the supporting players, to beef up motivations among the villains and it needed to take further advantage of co-star Stephan James who is wonderful except that his character is repeatedly let down by a screenplay that repeats far to many set-pieces and doesn’t let James’ character breath.
With the way that the characters of Michael and Ray are written, they could have been played by any actor and come out the same. The writing lacks any flavor and the repetitive action gives James and Kitsch, two young, handsome and charismatic actors, very little to play with. The screenplay lacks ambition and the resolution of the story feels forced and far too pat. The ending of 21 Bridges, aside from a tense action piece, peters out in a way that is highly unsatisfying.
In the end, there doesn’t appear to have been a moral or a theme to 21 Bridges. That’s a shame because there are numerous potential themes at play from father’s and son’s to duty versus loyalty, to one detective as an island to himself closing off a massive island. Simple notions that could have been developed into overarching themes but go nowhere in a script that is more like a clothesline intended to hold up action scenes.
As much as I admire the performance of Chadwick Boseman, there is no arc to Andre. He begins the movie as a dedicated and determined cop and he ends the movie as a dedicated and determined cop. We assume that the death of his father on the job and his supposed trigger happiness when it comes to suspects will play a role in the story, but they don’t. Corruption is rampant in the backstory of 21 Bridges but that aspect is so underwritten that when it becomes important in the third act, it’s too late for the movie to establish it as a meaningful theme.
21 Bridges collapses in the end because one of the three prongs of this story is not as strong as the other two. Boseman and James are delivering but the third prong of that story, regarding corruption doesn’t stand out and thus the movie crumbles. It’s a shame because I like Boseman and James, and director Brian Kirk can stage some very good action scenes. Sadly, that’s not enough to rescue 21 Bridges from mediocrity.