An entertaining little throwback that might have been something really special if the two leads switched roles.
Despite looking like little more than middlebrow “cop”-aganda, Chadwick Boseman’s new action vehicle 21 Bridges obscures a pleasant and shrewd thriller amidst its high-concept tomfoolery. This is a movie being aggressively marketed to the Blue Lives Matter crowd without having to compromise much towards that same demographic’s myopic view of society.
On the surface, the film’s straightforward premise – a detective shuts down all the bridges in Manhattan to ensnare a pair of cop killers – seems ripe for a full-throated exploitation picture, a Death Wish-esque bloodbath where our hero has the perfect excuse to go hog wild on some crooks. But the script, from Adam Mervis and The Kingdom scribe Matthew Michael Carnahan, reframes its set-up as an ongoing moral quandary.
Boseman plays Detective Andre Davis, a supercop whose dad was killed on the job and has a legendary record of firing his weapon at work, all clean kills. When a pair of thieves (Taylor Kitsch & Stephan James) bite off more than they can chew on a coke bust and end up shooting their way through cops to get away, Davis gets the collar and every single cop he interacts with is salivating for him to catch the killers himself and do what he does best, murder with impunity.
Instead, Davis, who we meet by excitedly ranting to Internal Affairs about how cops are the warrior class, has to wrestle with the case’s many inconsistencies and why everyone around him keeps taking shortcuts on what should otherwise be a slam dunk manhunt. It’s not the sort of intellectually probing portrait of law enforcement’s systemic issues, but it makes for a more compelling narrative than one might expect. It’s not exactly a surprise as the film’s telegraphed twists begin to stack up, but the implication of those turns is what resonates.
This is a film that puts so much effort into telling the audience that cops are untouchable super citizens and trespassing upon them should be met with swift and decisive justice, but that same rhetoric, when repeated ad nauseam, begins to show how little many of these officers actually care about the people they’re supposed to serve and protect. In particular, there’s a lengthy monologue late in the film, right before the final shootout, where a crooked cop gives a poor-me diatribe about how it’s okay for cops to break the law because they don’t make enough money and the system screws them over. It plays so well as a rhyming couplet with the explanation for why the film’s main “villains” have turned to crime in the first place. But a bad cop looks in the mirror and sees good reasons to bend the rules, where he only sees just cause in that same rationale from lawbreakers.
But beyond picking apart whether this new cop flick is “woke” or not, the finished product is polished and sleek enough to function as a meat and potatoes thriller, the kind we used to get a lot more of before tentpole filmmaking took over the landscape. TV veteran Brian Kirk’s direction leaves a lot to be desired in the scenes meant to imply an epic scope to New York’s grandeur, but he thrives when following Kitsch and James’ claustrophobic sojourn through the city, with his tight compositions boxing them in at every turn.
Boseman is still something of a charisma black hole, doing solid but unspectacular work in a role that a Denzel Washington might have knocked out of the park 20 years ago, but James runs away with the whole movie. His turn here pairs beautifully with his sympathetic work in If Beale Street Could Talk, making his piercing visage the perfect encapsulation of the black man’s struggle with the broken justice system. Overall, it’s an entertaining little throwback that might have been something really special if the two leads switched roles.