21st Nov2019

’21 Bridges’ Review

by Matthew Turner

Stars: Chadwick Boseman, Sienna Miller, Stephan James, Keith David, Alexander Siddig, Taylor Kitsch, J.K. Simmons, Louis Cancelmi, Victoria Cartagena | Written by Adam Mervis, Matthew Michael Carnahan | Directed by Brian Kirk

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Black Panther‘s Chadwick Boseman stars in this New York-set thriller produced by the Russo Brothers. Fast-paced and impressively acted, it’s a pleasingly old-fashioned thriller, providing you can side-step the occasional plot hole.

Directed by TV veteran Brian Kirk (Game of Thrones, Boardwalk Empire, Luther), 21 Bridges centres on a drug heist perpetrated by two small-time crooks (Stephan James and Taylor Kitsch) that goes badly wrong, leaving 8 cops dead at the scene. Theorising that the culprits will need to stay in Manhattan to get rid of their drugs, homicide detective Andre Davis (Boseman) is given until 5am to chase them down, with all traffic routes out of the city (i.e. the area within the 21 Bridges of the title) shut down until then.

Davis’ partner in the man-hunt is Frankie Burns (a near unrecognisable Sienna Miller), a narcotics detective from the same precinct as the murdered cops. However, the closer they get to their targets, the more Davis begins to suspect that something isn’t right.

Kirk directs with a strong sense of pace, particularly once the clock starts ticking on the man-hunt. He also knows how to punctuate a thriller, ensuring that you’re never more than a few minutes away from a nicely staged shoot-out, an exciting chase scene or a violent confrontation of some kind. To that end, the film feels like a throwback to the sort of stripped-down, effects-free thriller that they don’t really make any more and the result is extremely satisfying.

Boseman has proven his credentials elsewhere, both by playing a series of real-life figures (42, Marshall, Get On Up) and in his star-making turn as Black Panther. Accordingly, he’s on crowd-pleasing form here, serving up an appealing blend of charisma, attitude and unassailable integrity.

Similarly, Miller is excellent as Burns, nailing the accent convincing as a no-nonsense NY cop, though you can’t help wishing she’d been given a little more to do. There’s also strong support from the always-reliable J.K. Simmons (as the police Captain urging Davis to avenge his fallen cops), while Alexander Siddig has a colourful turn as a sort of executive-level money-launderer and Taylor Kitsch is reliably twitchy as the trigger-happy gunman. However, the stand-out support performance belongs to Stephan James, who’s compelling as the small-time crook who suddenly realises he’s out of his depth.

Indeed, the script’s most interesting element is the intriguing way that it plays games with audience sympathies, e.g. having the initial heist unfold so that you’re on the criminals’ side, making sure that we don’t get to know any of the murdered cops beforehand, having Stephan’s character only shoot someone in self-defence, and so on.

That’s not to say the film is entirely without flaws. For one thing, the script has a tendency to be a little clumsy, such as when it embarrassingly shoe-horns the word “avenger” into an opening eulogy (a key part of Davis’ back-story) and practically shouts the word just in case you missed it. It also has a take on a certain aspect of criminality that’s…let’s just say not as morally complex or as clever as it thinks it is.

On a similar note, the twists and turns of the plot are at best entirely predictable and at worst borderline groan-worthy. This particularly true in the case of a supposedly shocking moment towards the end that will surprise precisely no-one.

In addition, there’s a frustrating amount of inconsistency, making it feel like they rewrote parts of the script when Boseman came on board, but not others. The most obvious example is that Davis is initially introduced as someone who will not hesitate to shoot to kill when it comes to apprehending cop-killers (his cop dad was murdered by a junkie, you see), yet everything he does in the film contradicts that description. That results in a lack of complexity to his character when it ought to be about him struggling with and questioning his avenging instincts.

Another example involves the shutting down of the city, which is supposedly unprecedented and a huge deal, but barely plays into the story at all in terms of actual plot consequences or impact on the characters.

Despite its flaws, 21 Bridges is a fun Friday night thriller that maintains a high adrenaline level and provides further proof of Boseman’s movie star status. Worth seeing.

*** 3/5

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