Cast: Chadwick Boseman (Andre Davis), Sienna Miller (Frankie Burns), J.K. Simmons (Captain McKenna), Stephan James (Michael), Taylor Kitsch (Ray), Keith David (Deputy Chief Spencer), Jamie Neumann (Leigh)
Director: Brian Kirk
Story Adam Mervis
Screenplay: Adam Mervis, Matthew Michael Carnahan
Director of Photography: Paul Cameron
Editor: Tim Murrell
Original Music Composer: Henry Jackman
Genre: Action, Crime, Drama, Thriller
Rating: R for violence and language throughout.
Run Time: 100 minutes
In 21 Bridges, Chadwick Boseman plays André Davis, a New York City detective with a record of pulling the trigger in the line of duty. Taylor Kitsch and Stephan James are Ray and Michael, two small-time criminals who step into a hot mess when their attempt to steal a stash of drugs ends in a deadly shootout with the cops. Davis is sent to investigate, and the precinct captain (J. K. Simmons) asks him to kill the cop killers and spare the families of the slain cops from a drawn-out trial. To do so, Davis comes up with a plan: close down Manhattan and “flood the island with blue.”
21 Bridges feels competent and confident in how it is filmed. Director Brian Kirk moves the action along at a tight, economic pace. There are echoes of Michael Mann’s style in the shootout scenes, as composer Henry Jackman’s score recedes to allow gunshots and the sound of empty shell casings hitting the floor to punctuate silence. The camerawork is focused and sheds the shakiness so common in modern action movies — we can follow what’s going on in the shootouts, stand-offs, and footchases.
The movie gains points for its direction, but not many for its thematic material. On one hand, scriptwriters Adam Mervis and Matthew Michael Carnahan virtually ignore Davis’ positioning as a black cop. On the other, they toy with our expectations of who we should sympathize for. The precinct captain is out for blood after the deaths of the cops under his watch and he gives Davis and narcotics detective Frankie Miller (Sienna Miller) license to kill. On the flipside, Ray and Michael come across as desperados who get caught up in a corrupt scheme that’s larger than they know. The premise — that the cop killers and cop-killer killers may be on opposite sides of the law, but both boil down to guns hired to do a job — is intriguing, but is explained away by a plot contrivance.
The performances are generally solid, though Boseman seems miscast as Davis. The character’s itchy trigger finger stems from his father, also a cop, being killed on duty after bringing three of his assailants down with him. This backstory allows us to infer that Davis’ reputation for killing is more personal than impulsive, but Boseman’s calm and calculating demeanor a lá his other roles as T’Challa in Black Panther or Thurgood Marshall in Marshall doesn’t quite bring out either characteristic. It is not clear where Davis begins to question his thirst for vengeance or his role in bringing the cop killers to justice because he doesn’t ever seem like a cop who shoots first and asks questions later.
Overall, 21 Bridges is an entertaining action thriller with some above-average smarts. It raises interesting questions about law enforcement, but backs off from delving deeper. Some parts are distracting, such as the decision to cast Keith David as a police higher-up but only give him a handful of lines. He appears here and there at the start of the movie — in the background of a funeral or greeting Davis at a crime scene — and then disappears. However, the action is compelling, well-shot, and fun to watch. There is something to be said for brevity, and 21 Bridges does what it needs to in under two hours. Like its lead, it takes some interesting detours but ultimately gets the job done by the deadline.