For those who discovered Chadwick Boseman in the role of “Black Panther,” it’s about time the actor showed audiences what else he’s capable of. Sure, Boseman was back on the big screen a few months later in “Avengers: Infinity War” — but Marvel obviously underestimated his potential, giving Boseman far too little to do, then snapping him away for most of the sequel. Now, with “21 Bridges,” the actor who’d shown such potential as Jackie Robinson (in “42”) and Thurgood Marshall (“Marshall”) gets a chance to branch out, proving what someone of his caliber can do for an otherwise routine police thriller.
The feature debut of veteran TV director Brian Kirk (“Game of Thrones,” “Luther”), “21 Bridges” is dark, cynical and nearly slick enough to disguise how stupid it is. Nearly. The movie introduces the novel idea of a New York City manhunt so hot, the mayor agrees to block every route leading into or out of Manhattan. But it also suggests that the reason for taking such an extreme measure is that pretty much the entire New York police force is dirty, and that the criminals they’re pursuing must be cornered and killed before they can expose the whole scam.
“21 Bridges” arrives at a moment in American culture when public confidence in law enforcement has been hammered by fatal cases of police brutality, but even so, screenwriters Adam Mervis and Matthew Michael Carnahan have gone too far. They seem to imagine Boseman’s character, detective Andre Davis, as the tough-guy hero of a modern-day Don Siegel movie — a kind of East Coast “Dirty Harry” — where there’s no such thing as excessive force. Among his NYPD peers, Davis is known as the kind of cop who kills cop killers: fast on the draw and equally quick to pull the trigger. Seven times he has shot suspects in the field, so often that Internal Affairs has opened an investigation into his behavior.
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Statistics like those might give the public pause, but such a record makes Davis just the guy Capt. McKenna (J.K. Simmons) wants to clean up the mess after eight of his officers are left for dead at a crime scene. If the shooters are apprehended alive, lawyers will get involved, and there will be trials and appeals to make things miserable for the victims’ families — something Davis can relate to, since his father was a cop murdered by a junkie in the line of duty. “I’m asking you to protect them from all that,” McKenna implores, partnering Davis with a tough narcotics detective, Frankie Burns (Sienna Miller), before turning them both loose, like a pair of trained-to-attack Dobermans on the trail of their prey.
But “21 Bridges” is no ordinary manhunt. The movie does something strange from the outset: It shows the drug heist that started everything from the perps’ perspective, and even though one of the criminals is clearly out of his mind (that would be Taylor Kitsch, looking strung out and dangerous compared with more levelheaded accomplice Stephan James), it’s perfectly evident that they’ve been set up. They were told this would be a small-time stickup, only to discover 300 kilos of uncut cocaine at the scene. It’s also strange how quickly the cops show up, and how aggressively they attempt to secure the property.
Davis recognizes that there’s something wrong with this picture, and though he leads the charge in sealing off the island — which means closing all the bridges and tunnels, an operation that’s described via TV news in bars instead of actually being shown on screen — he starts to question McKenna’s motives. The captain seems a little too enthusiastic about tying up loose ends, and the cops from his division, the 85th Precinct, have an uncanny habit of showing up one step ahead of Davis and Burns, and leaving corpses in their wake.
In Kirk’s hands, the action scenes have a brusque, efficient quality. Practically everyone here is a trained killer, but nearly every confrontation introduces an element of chance, which can sometimes be the thing to dictate whether the various parties are killed or spared. Some of the deaths are quite shocking, but Kirk doesn’t linger on the gore the way some cop movies do, nor does he heighten the theatrics simply to impress. In nearly every case, it feels as if he’s looking for the cleanest solution when it comes to staging shootouts, introducing complexity in the form of where audiences should put their allegiances.
Despite that shades-of-gray approach, Boseman’s role doesn’t offer nearly as much complexity as the screenwriters seem to think — which is why the movie needs an actor like him to distract us from its many plot holes and paradoxes. Cops, the film reminds us, “have to account for every time their gun is discharged.” But if it weren’t for that early scene in which we see Davis reprimanded for being too aggressive with his weapon, there’s no evidence that this character resorts to violence under pressure. If anything, he behaves just the opposite here, going to extreme lengths not to shoot, which makes for at least three standoffs in which he puts his own life in danger so his quarry will have a chance to explain themselves.
A good conspiracy plot can make a generic cop movie feel bold and fearless, but this one makes the entire NYPD come off looking compromised — a situation Davis manages to resolve much too easily, pruning all the Big Apple’s bad apples in one improbable post-climactic reckoning. The movie pretends to describe modern-day Manhattan (much of which was convincingly shot in Philadelphia), when in fact it’s peddling the same square kind of old-school morality one might find in a classic Western, where Boseman would be the only honest gunslinger in town. James Mangold explored that dynamic on a smaller scale in his 1997 indie “Cop Land,” and a director of Michael Mann’s abilities could make it work on a canvas as big as New York, but for Kirk and company, the project is a classic case of intentions extending a bridge too far.