We first meet NYPD detective, Andre Davis (Chadwick Boseman), as he is investigated by Internal Affairs after having fired his weapon for the 8th time in his 10 years on the force. We also flashback to Andre as a young boy attending his father’s funeral. We then cut to Andre caring for his ailing mother. These attempts at characterization are the most we get out of “21 Bridges”, a generic new cop thriller that just manages to skirt by through it’s sheer entertainment factor.
When two small-time crooks (Stephan James & Taylor Kitsch) make off with an unexpected 100 kgs of cocaine, leaving dozens of dead cops in their path, detective Andre Davis is called upon to investigate, later deciding to shut down the island of Manhattan for 5 hours in attempt to catch the killers. When the investigation begins, it’s clear that things aren’t as cut and dry as they seem.
Clearly taking inspiration from such classics as “Escape From New York” and “The Warriors”, “21 Bridges” doesn’t use its surroundings to amplify the tension as much as you would prefer, but director Brian Kirk finds other avenues of making his set pieces gripping. Kirk, a frequent television helmer, does an admirable job of keeping the film moving at a brisk pace and sustaining a consistently palpable sense of tension. In fact, the frequently moving story helps from keeping you focused on just how tired and predictable the plot is. Once all the characters are introduced, you know exactly who the “bad guy” is; you know exactly who is going to double cross who and who will make it out alive. The lack of surprises in the story are also part of what prevent “21 Bridges” from being all that memorable.
The rather large ensemble cast is greatly acquired, but hardly anyone gets a role truly worthy of their talents. Sienna Miller as a tough Narcotics officer assigned as Andre’s partner, is given a thin back story and nothing more. J.K. Simmons is one-note as the bloodthirsty Police Captain wanting revenge for his fallen men. Newly reformed character actor, Taylor Kitsch, is also severely shortchanged by the films undercooked script. Only Chadwick Boseman and Stephan James come out on top with performances that have actual weight to them. James, in particular, gives the most layered performance as his morally-torn character attempts to get away with cash on tow, while attempting to steer clear of any bloodshed. It’s not the richest character, but given the roster of characters surroundings him, he stands out. Boseman, a true movie star, is effortlessly charismatic in his first starring role since last year’s juggernaut, “Black Panther”. With a lesser actor in the role, “21 Bridges” would be an even bigger slog, but Boseman keeps you locked in.
Whenever “21 Bridges” strives to reach more thoughtful territory, specifically dealing in the moral ambiguity of the main characters, it lands with a resounding thud, opting to take the easy way out. Character motivations are surface-level and the inevitable third act betrayals are painfully thin. The dialogue is also clunky at best with many exchanges feeling like they exist only for the sake of a dramatic beat in the films trailer.
With a finer tuned script, “21 Bridges” could’ve been a truly memorable action thrill ride. Instead, we get a passable 100 minute diversion that boasts some fine suspense and a solid performance from Chadwick Boseman. For easy-to-please fans of cop thrillers that excelled in the 1990’s, “21 Bridges” should just do the trick, but given everyone involved, it’s really not enough.