As with all review-caps, MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD. Consider yourself warned.
I’ve written before about my love of mid-budget action thrillers. So when the trailer first came out for 21 BRIDGES and I saw it was not only that very kind of flick, but also one made under the artful producing eye of the Russo Brothers, who managed to infuse the Marvel Universe with a serious, 70’s political thriller vibe – I was all in. And with a brief 99-minute run time, this one gets in, does its thing and gets out – which is usually how you want things to go. Unfortunately though for this flick, a more leisurely pace is just one of the things they desperately needed.
Our story starts out on a somber note, with the funeral of an NYPD officer. We stay on the face of the officer’s son, young Andre Davis (Christian Isaiah), who listens with tears rolling down his cheeks as the reverend (John Douglas Thompson) gives an impassioned, fury-filled eulogy. He talks about how Andre’s father made sure to take 3 of his 4 murderers down with him. Young Andre sits beside his devastated mother (Sarah Ella Stephens), and both he and his mother are comforted by NYPD Deputy Chief Spencer (Keith David). Then there’s a striking aerial shot looking down on the church as hundreds of officers snap to attention when the casket gets brought out.
Cut to present day and no big surprise, Andre (Chadwick Boseman) has become a detective himself – and he seems to have inherited his late father’s trigger finger. He sits in front of a panel of Internal Affairs officers, all of them grilling him about having 8 shootings under his belt in as many years – in a job where most officers go decades without a single incident. But Andre’s not falling for their scare and intimidation tactics. He’s resolute in his stance that all the shootings were “good” – aka justified.
Then Andre goes home to his apartment, where a hospice worker’s been looking after his mother (Adriane Lenox). He sits with her a while, and it’s obvious that she’s suffering from Alzheimer’s or dementia, as Andre has to remind her who he is. She tells him he works too hard, just like his father. In her words, he has to “look the devil in the eye.”
Next, we meet our antagonists – a couple of best friends, Michael (Stephan James) and Ray (Taylor Kitsch). Having served in the military together, they’re closer than brothers – and now they’ve become thieves together (because of course, in Hollywood, veterans equal damaged goods at the least and complete psychotic evil at the worst, and therefore make the best criminals). They’re gearing up for their next job, outfitting themselves with serious firepower and covering their faces with scarves.
Michael and Ray break into a bar/restaurant called Mosto’s and surprise the manager, Tom Cheaver (Dale Pavinski). They demand that he tell them where the cocaine is that they know he’s hiding. Cheaver warns them that they’re dead men, but they of course, don’t listen. They find the cocaine in the walk-in freezer – but they’re stunned to see that it’s not the 30 kilos they were told they would find. Instead, they find 300 kilos of pure, uncut coke. For a moment, they’re not sure what to do. Michael wants to bail but Ray refuses, saying they’re all in at this point and should just take as much as they can carry.
Before they can make their getaway, several NYPD cruisers pull up to the bar and the officers start banging on the doors. When Cheaver doesn’t answer, the cops get suspicious – and once they bust in, a fierce firefight ensues. Even though there’s more of them, the cops are outgunned by Michael and Ray’s machine guns – and in a matter of moments, Cheaver and every single one of the cops is dead.
Andre gets called to the scene, where he’s met by Capt. McKenna (JK Simmons) of the 85th Precinct, where the slain officers came from. McKenna’s pleased to see Andre – his reputation precedes him. And he’s exactly the kind of cop McKenna wants handling the investigation. He tells Andre the last thing he wants is to put the families through years of painful trials and parole hearings. It’s an unspoken order and Andre gets the message loud and clear. McKenna also assigns Andre some help – narcotics detective Frankie Burns (Sienna Miller). Andre doesn’t want a partner, but it’s already decided. “You can fight me or use me,” she says.
So they do the walk through the bloody crime scene, during which Andre shows off his investigative prowess. He’s able to tell exactly what happened and how, by the placement of the bodies, spent casings and blood. And once they see the freezer full of pure, uncut coke, they have a much better idea what happened.
Now here’s one of the flick’s major problems, in my opinion. If you’ve watched enough movies in your lifetime, then you’ve probably already guessed by this way-too-early point who the ultimate big bad is. Another one of Hollywood’s favorite fallback villains – the cops. And I’m not sure if the filmmakers were aware of how obvious they were being about it and just didn’t care because they thought they had a character piece – or if they actually thought they had a good mystery going on.
But anyhow, by looking at the crime scene, Andre figures out that they’re only looking for 2 guys. And after consulting with McKenna and a couple of other guys who are either FBI or from the Mayor’s office – they don’t make it very clear – Andre comes up with the solution: close Manhattan Island. That means putting the entire city on lockdown, blockading every way in and out and closing – you guessed it – all 21 bridges. And then what, McKenna and the Mayor’s guys ask. Andre answers, “Flood the island with blue.” It’s a crazy, not to mention inconvenient plan for the Mayor – but not catching the murderers of 8 cops would be an even worse scenario politically. So the Mayor’s guys agree to lock down Manhattan until 5 AM – and now we have our ticking clock.
While driving away from the scene, Ray makes the bad judgment call of running a red light – and as the traffic camera snaps a shot, Michael hides his face but Ray doesn’t bother. They decide to go the guy who turned them on to the gig in the first place, a local scumbag named Bush (Louis Cancelmi). They meet up with him in Chinatown, both of them furious at him for getting the details so wrong – there’s a huge difference between 30 kilos and 300. Michael and Ray demand that Bush take them to his dealer, Hawk (Gary Carr). So they take Bush’s car and torch their old one.
Meanwhile, NYPD’s Jason Bourne-like, super-tricked-out tech suite is also on the case and they soon catch the traffic camera footage. And soon after that, someone’s called in the car on fire in Chinatown. So while all this is going on, you’d think that we’d be learning more about Andre and Frankie, but we’re not. All we end up finding out about Frankie is that she’s a single mom and she dresses like a homeless person. And since she and Andre get along well enough, there isn’t even any of the requisite tension between them. In fact, there’s nothing going on between them. No chemistry whatsoever, friends, enemies or otherwise. Nope, they just run/drive from place to place together and stare at stuff.
And while they’re doing that, Bush brings Michael and Ray to the dealer, Hawk – an incredibly busy guy who makes them wait while he finishes spinning in his Louis Vuitton track pants. The guys ask him how and why everything got so screwed up. Hawk’s only answer is that he used them to steal from a rival dealer, and he’s rather unapologetic about it. Michael says they want a million for the coke they did manage to steal, and Hawk just laughs at them. “In pesos?” he jokes – but what he doesn’t count on is Michael being smart enough to know exactly how much the uncut coke is worth. And he demands to use Hawk’s forger/money launderer to get them travel documents so they can get out of the city.
So Hawk pays up – in bags full of $20’s that probably weigh more than the coke. But the guys are stuck with it. So they take Bush’s car to the forger, named Adi (Alexander Siddig – aka Dr. Bashir for all you DS9 fans). He’s a seriously foppy dude in his smoking jacket and slippers – but he has one major front door, steel with triple locks. He tells them to store the money with him in his safe and he’ll prepare everything for them while they take separate buses to Miami. The guys don’t like the idea, but then they learn from the TV news that the entire island is on lockdown. They’re out of options.
And it’s then that a rogue band of 85th Precinct guys descend on the place – and of course, they’re not interested in arresting anybody, which they display by shooting Adi right through the peephole. Then they try busting through that major door, which doesn’t work too well, so then they just start shooting. An injured Adi tells Michael to take the flash drives out of the computers before they get conveniently shot up, too. Michael and Ray manage to make their getaway just as the cops are busting in and they finish Adi off.
Of course, Andre and Frankie don’t learn about any of this until it’s all over – and if you haven’t already figured out that the cops are the real bad guys before now, you’re definitely aware of it by this point. At least Andre finally gets the idea that there’s something bigger going on when he sees the shot-up computers.
But by this point in the flick, there’s really no need to continue with a blow-by-blow of the plot. It’s just one big chase as Michael and Ray reluctantly decide to follow Adi’s instructions and split up. The 85th Precinct guys close in on them at a meat packing plant, where they succeed in killing Ray. Andre and Frankie arrive after the fact as usual and Andre’s pissed that they killed Ray. He and Frankie split up and Michael ends up grabbing Frankie – he puts a gun to her head as Andre aims in on him.
Frankie keeps telling Andre to pull a Speed and ‘shoot the hostage’ – but despite his reputation, Andre tries to talk Michael down, much to Frankie’s frustration. Eventually, Michael shoves Frankie away and ducks out a back door. Andre chases him through the remarkably empty streets (sorry, but I just have a really hard time buying that in a city of almost 2 million people, that every single person would actually follow the lockdown order) and ends up trapping him on the subway.
And just as Michael’s about to give himself up and stand down – big surprise – Frankie takes him out. And now Andre knows for sure that Frankie’s in league with the other 85th Precinct guys. And in probably the best scene in the whole flick, Andre walks through Grand Central Station, where every cop he meets on the way congratulates him on a job well done. But you can tell that Andre feels like he’s walking through a lions’ den, and he knows he’s going to be a target now, too.
So how does it all end? Well, Andre’s gotten a hold of those flash drives and has, of course, figured it all out. And when Capt. McKenna finally gets to his lovely suburban home at sun-up, who should he find waiting in his kitchen but Andre. He confronts McKenna with the truth – that the 85th guys made money by transporting drugs. Michael and Ray just had the bad luck of running into them.
One thing I will give this flick is that, aside from the usual Hollywood attitude of cops/military = BAD, it manages to remain largely apolitical. And when McKenna gives his info-dump explanation of why his guys did what they did, he makes sure Andre knows that it wasn’t about “Cadillacs and Rolexes.” He had guys under his care that were seriously depressed, alcoholics, even suicidal. So what they did they did to help keep their families together. But instead of just giving himself up, we get one last shootout as what’s left of the 85th shows up to take Andre out. But given that we’re at the end, all that ends up happening is that all the bad cops end up dead, and Andre walks away from the scene, having looked the devil in the eye and survived.
As I was watching this disappointingly run-of-the-mill story play out, I couldn’t help but think of a flick with a similar setup – The Taking of Pelham 123 (1974) – and how that flick did everything that 21 Bridges was trying to do. Except they succeeded where this one failed. Pelham 123 made their story about character, not plot. You got invested in the bad guys – you actually wanted to see them get away with the heist. But you also wanted the good guys to catch them. All the same stuff that should be happening in 21 Bridges, but doesn’t. Chadwick Boseman’s performance, as good as it is, barely holds the flick together. And you really don’t know anything more about him by the end of flick than you do at the beginning. It’s a real shame, because if the filmmakers had taken more of a Pelham 123 approach to the story, they would’ve come out with an engaging story that was uniquely New York, instead of just the sadly forgettable flick they ended up with.
Directed by: Brian Kirk
Written by: Adam Mervis, Matthew Michael Carnahan
Release Date: Nov. 22 , 2019
Run Time: 1 hr 39 min
Distributor: STX Entertainment