There is something incredibly fascinating about crime and those who commit crimes. Hollywood makes films about the subject constantly and we watch these films because we want to understand why certain people commit these acts. Depending on the intentions of the filmmaker, crime stories can be treated with complexity like in The Godfather (1972), Goodfellas (1990) or Heat (1995) or as a fun distraction like in Lethal Weapon (1987), Die Hard (1988) or Point Break (1991). In same cases, the line between complexity and fun can be blurred, as is the case with Brian Kirk’s 21 Bridges.
Set in New York City, Chadwick Boseman stars as Police Detective Andre Davis. Tormented by the loss of his policeman father, Davis has gained a reputation for being trigger happy when it comes to cop-killers. Following a drug robbery gone wrong which resulted in many policemen deaths, Davis is assigned by J.K Simmon’s Captain McKenna to hunt down the men responsible. To catch the criminals, Michael (played by Stephen James) and Ray (played by Taylor Kitsch), Davis orders all the bridges in and out of Manhattan be closed. However, Davis sees that there are some mysterious circumstances surrounding this whole incident, as every other cop is shooting to kill. Right off the bat, this is a great high concept premise with a lot of potential. Even though it never fully capitalises on that potential, it still is a fun watch.
From the first scene, Davis is given a heartfelt backstory explaining his nuanced motivations. Between his connection to his late father and ailing mother, we are immediately given an insight into Davis’ humanity and his hesitation to kill. It’s a cliched character trope, but it’s employed effectively with a competent performance from Boseman. Despite the decent effort, the character isn’t given any greater depth as the story unfolds. He is a functional tool for the action instead of a memorable hero. Even after setting up analysis of his previous police conduct, the main story doesn’t have much to say regarding the issue. Even with amazing talent such as JK Simmons, Sienna Miller, Stephen James and Taylor Kitsch on board, none of the principle characters are given the complexity they deserve. The climax calls back to important moments set up in the opening, but the emotional impact doesn’t fully land as the entire plot is unrefined despite being functional.
With the plot’s many moving parts, you have to wonder why the film is at a brisk 100 minutes. Happily, the quick pace does make for an easy and enjoyable watch as the bullets fly. However, this results in glossing over the effects of closing the bridges. After the appropriately jaw-dropping sequence of the island being closed, it is never addressed again in a way that matters. Sure, the cops and criminals engage in a thrilling chase, but we never see how this dilemma effects the criminal duo’s escape plan. Actually seeing them wrestle with closed bridges and closed tunnels could’ve differentiated 21 Bridges from every other crime film. With no time to examine its premise effectively, all we are left with is a workable yet standard cat and mouse plot involving underground criminal empires and corrupt police officers’.
Regarding its themes of police corruption, 21 Bridges finds compelling depth, but doesn’t go as far as it should. These are narrative ideas that have been done to death in other films, but Director Brian Kirk attempts to cover the subject with a sharper edge. The first act takes an artful pace, wonderfully building a feeling of dread and tension reminiscent of an epic war film. The hypnotic darkness is aided by Paul Cameron’s haunting cinematography. Right when the drug robbery kicks in, the sinister tone allows us to actually feel the horror of the murders committed. However, the violence throughout the rest of the film doesn’t follow through on that contemplative setup. The violence is more often used to make the audience wince instead of think.
This isn’t to say that the action scenes aren’t competent and incredibly heart-pumping, but they are odds with the script’s thematic intentions, preventing the ideas from being fully integrated into the story. The screenplay establishes questions regarding Davis’ police conduct, yet every other characters’ actions are far more severe than his. If this contradiction was acknowledged or used as a discussion point, it may have been useful as part of the thematic analysis. The script nobly attempts to justify the contradiction with its corruption subplot, even as the dark tone prevents it from being completely believable.
A dark and serious tone causing a film to feel unbelievable is an idea that’s very easy to miss. as many films want to be taken seriously. 21 Bridges, with its artful setup and poetically dark cynicism, wants the to be a prestige drama. However, steering too far into darkness can cause the more outlandish scenarios to come off slightly silly. With it’s outlandish action sequences, it may have benefited from leaning into the farcical nature of it all. Don’t get me wrong, it is still highly engaging and will surely be loved for its fast paced action and over-the-top staging.
Even with all these notable faults, Brian Kirk’s 21 Bridges is not a total loss. It’s thematic, narrative and character goals never properly coalesce, but they are well intentioned and ambitiously complex. When setting aside it’s story imperfections, you are still left with a well acted, action heavy and darkly gorgeous looking thriller. It never reaches Die Hard’s level of fun or Heat’s level of depth, but 21 Bridges is a crime story that will pass the time harmlessly enough and will surely please viewers who haven’t seen those earlier films. It could have been much more, but the effort is appreciated.
Best way to watch it: With your young cousin who’s keen to see his/her first R-Rated movie.