Dir: Brian Kirk. Starring: Chadwick Boseman, Sienna Miller, Stephan James, Taylor Kitsch, Keith David, and JK Simmons. 15 cert, 99 mins
A nod to the number of cross-water links between Manhattan and its boroughs, 21 Bridges was initially called 17 Bridges – that is, until its filmmakers realised they’d miscounted. It’s a pretty big clue as to the level of care that’s gone into this film, which handles its themes of police violence with the delicacy of a monster truck reversing into a field of daffodils.
Take, for example, the film’s absurd premise: the mayor, in order to catch a pair of cop killers, orders the closure of every route in or out of Manhattan. What happens next plays out like a police state fantasy, as we watch the boys in blue swarm every block in the city. A news anchor later confesses it has all the look and feel of a “military invasion”.
The problem with 21 Bridges is that it wants to take a stance, but seems entirely unsure what that stance should be. Our hero, NYPD detective Andre Davis (Chadwick Boseman), is a Dirty Harry-esque cop who sees himself as a righteous extension of the law. He feels zero remorse for those he’s shot and killed in the line of duty. His father was a police officer, you see, who was murdered on the job by a gang of drug addicts. It doesn’t exactly take a degree in psychology to make the connection. Boseman’s impressive filmography (from Get on Up to 42) is largely overshadowed by his regal turn as Marvel’s Black Panther, and the actor finds a surprising amount to work with in such a basic, stock character. His Andre is quiet, inscrutable, and alert – like an apex predator honing in on its next meal.
Captain McKenna (JK Simmons) calls on Andre to catch those responsible for the deaths of seven of his men, though he makes it clear what his real task is. In a half-whisper, he points out that if the shooters were arrested, the subsequent trials and appeals would only further the trauma of the victims’ families. “I’m asking you to protect them from all that,” he says. He even gives him an equally trigger-happy partner in the form of narcotics officer Frankie Burns (Sienna Miller, whose Brooklyn accent is more Newsies than no-nonsense cop). Yet it’s obvious to us that not all is as it seems. The film also offers the viewpoint of the perps (Taylor Kitsch and Stephan James), two hired hands who thought they were on a routine job, only to stumble on 300 kilos of uncut cocaine – instead of the 30 they were expecting – and an army of officers that seems to have appeared out of nowhere.
The deeper into the rabbit hole we go, the more Andre begins to question his beliefs. But Adam Mervis and Matthew Michael Carnahan’s screenplay is too timid to offer any outright critique of law enforcement or draw any meaningful parallels with real-world events. Instead, we get a film peppered with “blue lives matter”-esque speeches that feel like they were written explicitly to quell any potential controversy over the film.
It’s an odd choice, since director Brian Kirk otherwise delivers a slick-looking, decently paced action-thriller. What’s the point in 21 Bridges trying to stay politically relevant if the message is this vague and muddled?
21 Bridges is released in UK cinemas on 22 November