Brian Kirk’s 21 Bridges feels like a film ripped out of the B-Movie slot from your old-school picture palace — you know the one, it stands on the same corner as the malt shop and the pharmacy whose lunch counter has the good roast beef. If you strip away the swearing and the often-extreme Z-grade violence, you’re left with a movie endowed with the bombast of those noir-adjacent procedurals, back before they abandoned the screen for television. That sensibility goes a long way towards explaining exactly why the film’s politics are so middle-of-the-road, as the film acts as if the Hays Code is still in force at points while sporting the trappings of your modern R-rated thriller, but it also proves to be relatively engaging and entertaining in the process.
On a seemingly quiet night in New York, two machine gun-wielding thieves — Ray (Taylor Kitsch), a struggling sober vet, and Michael (If Beale Street Could Talk‘s Stephan James), an army washout with a conscience — rob a Brooklyn restaurant that serves as a drug hideout expecting to walk away with 30 kilos of blow. What they find is 300 kilos of the pure stuff and four angry cops from New York’s 85th Precinct, who seem to know quite a bit about what’s going on. After a shootout leaves a grand total of eight cops and the restaurant manager dead, the pair flee the scene, try to move the weight in Chinatown, and attempt to flee the city.
The 85th’s Captain (J.K. Simmons) enlists the help of Supercop Andre Davis (Chadwick Boseman, who is literally introduced to us in a flashback while the word “avenger” is uttered, in case you forgot that Avengers honchos the Russo Brothers produced this), who is known for his quick trigger and sense of righteousness. Motivated into service by his cop father’s death at the hands of an angel-dusted crook when Davis was a kid, he, understandably, hates cop-killers. The captain wants the thieves dead by any means necessary, and pairs the detective up with Frankie Burns, a similarly skilled one from his own department in order for confirmation. With the approval of the department, the mayor and the FBI, the pair put the island on lockdown, closing all 21 bridges that lead in and out of the city (see what they did there?). Yet Davis’ sense of justice begins to outweigh his trauma, and as he gets deeper into the case, he starts to smell a rat.
Here are the core ensemble’s Noo Yawk accents, ranked: Boseman, James, Simmons, Keith David, Kitsch, and, finally, Miller, who just can’t do it, sadly. The film’s expediency is part of its fun, and it really tears ass trying to get to its conclusion, but it sacrifices a number of potentially interesting moments for its characters: Aside from Boseman’s lead, we’re mainly told everything we need to know about these guys, rather than shown. Importantly, what details are shown to us are often interesting: James’ fear and pain while watching Kitsch doom them, Simmons’ rage and guilt manifesting itself in not so subtly ordering his officers to gun down every suspect they see, Boseman’s careful calculation and growing frustration with what he’s witnessing. When these performances are merged with Kirk’s fun and oversized direction — the man loves himself some gore, as we see mangled faces and fingers that wouldn’t be out of place in an S. Craig Zahler film — 21 Bridges is exactly the kind of fun, adult-oriented programming that pairs great on a weekend that was seeming reserved for the earnest and child-at-heart viewers.
That hyper-focus also leaves a number of interesting opportunities on the table, and Kirk doesn’t seem interested in exploring his characters and their circumstances any deeper than he has to. He’s not particularly intrigued by the racial dynamics at play here, especially given that the NYPD seems to be fertile ground to at least try, and 21 Bridges‘ belief in the ultimate infallibility of the Good Cop feels somewhat wrong when presented to us here, as they are very much the exception, not the rule in this particular on-screen NYC. It’s a similar case to Black and Blue, where a cop’s faith in the police is rewarded… even though they’ve been exposed to all of the reasons why that faith should be questioned and/or abandoned in the first place, though Kirk was at least wise enough to abandon topics he didn’t feel like he could tackle. But that sort of stubbornness focus and goofy faith puts it in line with other solid B-pictures from cinema’s past (and from the pages of something like EC’s Crime Does Not Pay), and it proves to be enough to justify the cost of admission.