Shoring up a lack of surprises with spirited subterfuge and action that’s propulsive and plausible, 21 Bridges would’ve been a guaranteed $80-million hit for Denzel Washington or Wesley Snipes 25 years ago. Today, such cop thrillers constitute Thanksgiving counter-programming. It isn’t that they don’t make this sort of thing anymore. It’s that they’re usually confined to VOD hell.
This particular outing benefits from smash-and-grab pacing (in and out after 94 minutes), a script that flexes its knowledge of biblical scripture and spits unexpectedly sturdy flow (“Ain’t no way to move 50 kilos of yayo in Utica” boasts musical pleasance akin to “Ever pick your feet in Poughkeepsie?”), and a cast that comes in at perfect weight instead of top-heavy showboating.
But its most distinguishing factor is the electricity of leading man Chadwick Boseman, who also produced the film with Joe and Anthony Russo — the filmmakers who introduced Boseman as Black Panther in Captain America: Civil War. Boseman’s warmth and woe suits the material. NYPD Detective Andre Davis prides himself on pursuing a just code in a cruel world. But he has also shot eight people in nine years. Each one was justified and not a one keeps him up at night. After all, police work has been in Andre’s DNA since his dad died in the line of duty — beaten to death by addicts so hopped up they didn’t even remember doing it.
In a story that finds Andre tracking a pair of cop killers in the wee hours, he’d seem especially primed for extreme-prejudice prosecution. But Andre generally eschews sledgehammer tactics for soft-spoken insistence that information volunteered will extract him from someone’s life in seconds flat. Boseman extends Andre’s help-me-help-you approach to subtle gestures, like his commendatory and conversational tone of voice with helpful beat cops or a light pat of his badge that encourages a frightened bystander to nod in the direction of a gun-toting perp. Boseman also knows precisely when to explode, particularly in a third-act eruption that offers a bracing boost ahead of the epilogue you’ll come to expect of this story.
You believe Andre’s argument to Internal Affairs that he doesn’t think he’s arbiter of justice, but instead the “sharp end of that determination” in a system that metes it out to the deserving. Andre’s ethos is sharply tested by what transpires after midnight in Brooklyn on one fateful evening. A pair of military veterans (Taylor Kitsch and Stephan James) arrive at a drug-front Italian restaurant intending to steal 30 kilograms of uncut cocaine. Seeing as drug heists don’t attract the detail-oriented (as the script mentions in a moment that finds snickers amid savagery), an inside man forgot to add a zero. What they find is 300 kilos and eight cops waiting outside — the latter gunned down in a firefight that puts the thieves under a citywide manhunt.
Andre takes command of the search, encouraged by the precinct captain (J.K. Simmons, doing his thang) and accompanied by a perceptive narcotics detective (Sienna Miller). Trying to ease cop-killer bloodlust, Andre proposes an island-wide shutdown of Manhattan, where the thieves have fled — a risky move to which a mayor besieged by rising crime stats agrees … but only until the city awakens from its power nap at 5 a.m. If Andre can’t find his men by then, it’s his career on the line.
There is, obviously, Much More Going On in 21 Bridges. But there is fun in the faces of those whom you suspect are harboring secrets, force behind the stated middle-class anxieties that drive some of their desperation heaves, and fury in undulating undercurrents of racial tension. Meanwhile, director Brian Kirk employs the same sleek, sophisticated aesthetic he brought to the BBC’s Luther and the second-unit / stunt coordination work of Spiro Razatos carries the same charge as his MCU work on a smaller budget.
21 Bridges does nothing new. But it introduces enough trace elements of Safdie-ish fatalism to complement throwback energy of putting actors behind guns, filling the screen with their faces, and giving them sturdy, stentorian soliloquies to sling at each other. It’s a gritty little ditty.