Loud, bloody, and utterly unsurprising, 21 Bridges will win no plaudits for reinventing the bang-bang police procedural, but it at least goes through some of the familiar motions with reasonable skill, if not inspiration.
Set against a New York City night that sees seven police officers fatally shot by two armed robbers pulling a cocaine heist gone horribly awry, 21 Bridges follows Detective Andre Davis (Chadwick Boseman) shutting down the entirety of Manhattan — the number of bridges in the picture’s title referring to the routes in and out of the island — and bringing in the shooters alive before an army of avenging cops leaves them as corpses.
Director Brian Kirk does an economical job packing one hellish night into a brisk 100 minutes. Not that the script does any favors: Detective Davis, gallant as Boseman can make him, spouts off lines like “flood the island with blue” and “as long as you wear that badge, I’ll have your back.” The pro-police dialogue — unseemly as it is considering the actual state of criminal justice today — is as old as the genre, and screenwriters’ Adam Mervis and Matthew Michael Carnahan’s attempts to flick at contemporary real-world sentiments plays like flabby lip service.
Kirk, making his feature debut after a television career dotted with episodes of action-heavy series like Game of Thrones and Luther, is at least able to move efficiently. Other than a pair of brief opening scenes establishing Davis’s credentials — he’s the guy you bring in to take down cop killers, and as the son of a cop killed in the line of duty, naturally, his chosen profession was inevitably “in my DNA” — 21 Bridges speeds toward its conclusion. It’s a twist visible from the middle of the second act, but at least it gets there quickly enough.
But that leaves little room to establish characters as anything other than broad archetypes. To be sure, it’s hard not to root for Boseman, who brings his now-familiar combination of gravitas and charm. Yet after playing so many singularly admirable figures — Jackie Robinson, Thurgood Marshall, T’Challa — it’s disappointing that the weak script deprives Boseman any opportunity to inject a whiff of complexity into his role.
The two gunmen the police are chasing (Taylor Kitsch and Stephan James) get fleshed out slightly more. Caught up in a scheme bigger than what they bargained for — again, this isn’t too complicated — their criminality melts into panic, and in James’s character’s case, maybe even borders on remorse.
Still, 21 Bridges never shakes its most irksome details. Cops are venerated without second thought, while civilians killed in the crossfire are forgotten entirely. The story’s big surprise isn’t much of one at all. And an otherwise very talented cast — including J.K. Simmons as the vengeful police captain, Sienna Miller as the narcotics officer who is as skillful and heroic as Detective Davis, and Alexander Siddig as the open-all-night money launderer — is stuck trying to elevate the flat material.
It’s not entirely without merit: there’s still some entertainment value to a mindless crime thriller that wraps up in under two hours, and might some day be a staple of weekend cable or, more likely, a streaming service. True to its genre, 21 Bridges shoots high — well, mostly it just shoots a lot of bullets — but lands squarely in the unfortunate, but maybe not uncomfortable, middle.