Deep in the basement of a swanky Brooklyn restaurant, stacked up high in a walk-in freezer, is a bounty: kilos and kilos of uncut cocaine, just waiting to be taken. At least, that’s the hope of small-time crooks Ray (Taylor Kitsch) and Michael (Stephan James), who arrive at said restaurant late one night, eager to make off with some coke, sell it to the crime boss who hired them for the gig, and move on with their lives. Of course, that’s not what’s going to happen. A bit player in Brian Kirk’s sturdy crime drama soon offers up a snappy summation: “Someone fucked up.”
Named for the 21 bridges that go into (and out of) Manhattan, “21 Bridges” wedges in a thrilling concept to an occasionally tense but largely predictable cop drama.
After Ray and Michael’s simple job goes topside, leading to the brutal massacre of eight cops who just happen to be hanging around the restaurant, the pair face off against another unexpected twist. Enter NYPD detective Andre Davis (a compelling Chadwick Boseman), the kind of hard-boiled anti-hero who used to populate scores of mid-budget crime dramas like this one — and has been largely consumed by the big-budget franchise filmmaking that made Boseman a household name in “Black Panther.” While the multiplex might not be playing home to such mid-budget fare these days, “21 Bridges” is a welcome (if somewhat routine) return to that formula.
The movie opens with Andre’s origin story: Two decades prior, as a stone-faced young man (Christian Isiah), he endures the funeral of his beloved cop father. In that moment, Andre’s fate is sealed: He’s not only going to follow his father’s path, he’s also going to make it his mission to off anyone who would dare cross a cop. Despite the film’s opening minutes obviously working to set Andre up as a man shaped by his past, the bulk of “21 Bridges” doesn’t build off those roots, abandoning the familial backdrop in favor of making the tough-nosed cop into a harsh caricature.
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Nineteen years later, Andre is more dedicated to upholding his own code of justice than he is to the police force. He’s shot over a dozen bad guys in just a few years, and he’s apparently immune to Internal Affairs’ castigations. He’s a typical loose cannon, but he’s also the sort of cop who can sniff out Ray and Michael, dead or alive. Boseman’s even-keeled on-screen presence initially makes for a strange pairing — an apparently unhinged cop is not a natural fit for him — but as Andre emerges as one of the film’s few trustworthy players, the casting makes more sense.
Convinced there’s no way Ray and Michael have gotten too far — Andre may be a live wire, but he’s got some serious reasoning abilities and a real handle on the way people behave — and battling back eager FBI agents, his own pissed-off boss (Keith David), and the Brooklyn precinct that has just lost so many of its best guys, Andre offers a wild idea: Shut down all the bridges, let him sniff out (and likely snuff out) the bad guys before the sun rises on New York City. (And yes, after an amusing beat, Andre does throw in the tunnels and trains, too; no one is getting off this goddamn island on his watch, no matter what mode of transportation they employ.) It’s a big ask, but despite initial trepidation — and a demand the shutdown only last a few hours — it’s carried out swiftly, the best idea the script has to offer up before it sags into a familiar routine.
Temporarily teamed up with Frankie, a gritty narcotics detective from the same precinct as the murdered cops (a surprisingly well-cast Sienna Miller) and at the mercy of the big-talking Captain McKenna (J.K. Simmons), Andre sets off on a zippy manhunt through the city. Skipping from location to location, the script unfolds into a series of vignettes as the partners try to crack the case, from thrilling discoveries of potential accomplices to muddled visits to strange dance clubs.
Soon enough — far too soon to mine any dramatic tension — the NYPD has identified and located the criminal duo. At least this narrative misstep allows Adam Mervis and Matthew Michael Carnahan’s script to spend time with the frantic pair, adding a thoughtful balance to a largely standard story. That early interest in the supposed baddies indicates early on that not everything in “21 Bridges” is what it seems.
As Andre and Frankie keep nipping at Ray and Michael’s heels, the very different twosomes careen through a damp, dark New York City (the film was mostly shot in Philadelphia, but the City of Brotherly Love makes a fine stand-in for Gotham, especially when “21 Bridges” dips into the less-populated portions of lower Manhattan). Colorful characters abound, from the drug dealer who hired the ill-fated duo (plus his outrageously entertaining, nameless girlfriend) and the guy who might help them launder their cash to an array to a random assortment of cops who are hardly helping Andre and Frankie’s investigation.
Most action sequences boil down to by-the-numbers foot chases, but “21 Bridges” does eventually build to a pulse-pounding subway chase lifted straight out of “The French Connection,” one so good that even diehard New Yorkers will forgive that the train is certainly not a local conveyance, and the 7 train definitely doesn’t run the route Kirk sets it on.
Marvel maestros (and obvious Boseman fans) Joe and Anthony Russo are on deck as producers — their names are all over the marketing material, all the better to lure those MCU fans into something different — but the action that “21 Bridges” ramps up to in its second half is far more grounded than similar sequences in the Russos’ biggest films. If they wanted to hitch on to another project capable of showing off Boseman’s range, it’s an understandable choice, and the actor’s on-screen presence and dialed-down charm are good enough to recommend him for the continued adventures of Andre Davis, wherever they lead next.
Little of “21 Bridges” ends up being that shocking — it’s tough going when the face a character makes after accepting a phone call can so easily tip off that something’s amiss — but Boseman and Miller make a solid team and creative plotting keep things moving right along. The final act doesn’t surprise, but it offers the kind of original crime drama action so lacking at the multiplex these days, with just enough ethical issues to leave audiences pondering its twists. It’s enough to make you wonder if Boseman is due for another franchise about a justice-driven hero, catsuit be damned.
STX will release “21 Bridges” in theaters on Friday, November 22.