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At the heart of Brian Kirk’s 21 Bridges is a fantastic high-concept idea. The title refers to one of the many ways in which people are able to access the island of Manhattan, and the plot follows a detective protagonist through a night when all of those entrances and exits are shutdown during a citywide manhunt for a pair of cop killers. Matched with a high caliber ensemble, you imagine a sprawling thriller that can skillfully flip the script and make the viewer question who the real heroes are, all while constructing epic showdowns as the criminals try to escape with their lives.
Sadly, though, that’s not how the film comes together. While there is a stellar cast getting some interesting character material to work with, every plot development comes out of obvious tropes (up to including a third act reveal), and lacks scope to the point where it feels like it’s just rushing to the finish. While were used to movies like this getting a lot of running time real estate to work with (for example Michael Mann’s Heat is 172 minutes, and Andrew Davis’ The Fugitive is 140 minutes), this one is able to wrap up in 103 minutes, and you feel it as the pacing prevents any kind of real audience attachment.
Scripted by Matthew Michael Carnahan and Adam Mervis, the film centers on Andre Davis (Chadwick Boseman), an NYPD detective who has a reputation for being quick with his trigger finger – though all the cases later proved that he was in the right acting as he did. Being the son of a father who was killed in the line of duty, he is both enraged and horrified to be called to a crime scene one night where a drug heist gone wrong resulted in eight cops being murdered, as well as a civilian.
Getting pressure from the captain of the murdered officers, Captain McKenna (J.K. Simmons), and working with an assigned partner, narcotics detective Frankie Burns (Sienna Miller), Davis is able to orchestrate it so that transportation in and out of Manhattan is shut down until those responsible are found – but he only has until sunrise to take the perps down, and then all routes will be opened for morning commutes.
Those perps are Ray (Taylor Kitsch) and Michael (Stephan James), the former a veteran-turned-criminal who used to partner with the latter’s older brother until the sibling was killed. And their problems are even bigger than just trying to get away from the police. The tip they initially received for the heist was seriously inaccurate, as they discover 300 kilograms of cocaine in a safe where they expected 30 kilograms. Carrying a payload way bigger than expected, they have to unload the product, and then try and find a way off the island without detection.
21 Bridges starts well, but winds up relying on clichés and obvious plot turns.
With setups like this, it typically helps if the narrative makes it so that the criminals are always five steps ahead of those pursuing them, allowing for clever plot maneuvers as well as some thrilling narrow escapes. But 21 Bridges instead starts on its back foot in this regard. While there definitely is some drama to be created from Ray and Michael not being skilled professionals, it doesn’t balance with Davis being such a skilled detective. The majority of the movie has the police being right on top of their targets, and it steals away from the thrill of the chase.
Not helping the movie’s case are some seriously forced contrivances, and some seriously unfortunate twist attempts. Specific instances in mind are too spoilery to be openly discussed in this spoiler-free forum, but in 21 Bridges we once again see the return of modernity’s favorite MacGuffin, the secret-filled USB drive, and it’s patently obvious from the first 20 minutes how things are going to shake out in the final five.
Chadwick Boseman, Taylor Kitsch and Stephen James do well with 21 Bridges’ strong characters.
Weak as its plotting may be, 21 Bridges does have a strength in its character construction, as the majority of the leads have really interesting personalities and backstories that keep you engaged with what they’re doing. Principally there is Chadwick Boseman, who continues to prove himself a powerful and capable leading man – even when he’s not playing a superhero or historical figures. Andre is an interesting character that Boseman makes compelling with a nuanced performance, as it’s exciting to see the wheels turn in his head as he calls the shots.
Playing the mice to Boseman’s cat, Taylor Kitsch and Stephan James also make for a great pair and play off each other well. There’s an id versus ego dynamic between the two click into, and as a result it’s exciting to watch how they individually respond to their circumstances. You ultimately wish they had more moves to make in the story just because they are fun to watch. The story just doesn’t provide.
You want to see a lot more of New York than 21 Bridges has to provide.
One could also make the argument that a movie titled 21 Bridges should probably feature at least one face-off on a bridge – but not only is it a problem that the film doesn’t do that, but it also doesn’t do as much exploration as you’d like to see. As seen countless times in Hollywood history, New York is a brilliantly cinematic city, but there’s no real effort made through the script to explore its unique culture and geography. This is possibly an extension of the fact that the majority of production took place in Philadelphia, but whatever the reason, it simply doesn’t feel like the “New York Movie” that it should be.
21 Bridges is far from a bad movie – it’s just more of a middle-of-the-road movie than you’d expect from the talent involved and the central concept. With more inventive and well-paced second and third acts to match its first, the film could have joined a strong legacy of great titles in the genre, but instead it’s more a movie you may find yourself half watching on a lazy Saturday afternoon.