The funny thing about the generic cop thriller 21 Bridges is that the title conceit–that the NYPD must close all 21 bridges (along with three tunnels and assorted other exits) to Manhattan in order to keep a pair of dangerous criminals trapped on the island–ends up meaning so little to the story.
The concept suggests a cat-and-mouse game, with the police and bad guys trying to outwit each other as the latter seek an escape from the densely packed borough. Instead, one inventive chase scene aside, we get a dull, by-the-numbers actioner in which we are so far ahead of the supposedly brilliant lead detective that we might as well be on the Long Island Expressway headed to Montauk.
That lead gumshoe is played by Black Panther’s Chadwick Boseman, out of a vibranium catsuit for the first time since 2017’s Marshall. Sadly he’s given little to work with as Andre Davis, who lives with his dementia-addled mother and whose cop father died years ago in the line of duty. That’s pretty much all we know about Andre, although we first meet him in an Internal Affairs interview where it’s inferred that shooting nine perps in eight years makes him unstable. But that plot thread is quickly abandoned, along with any other real development for Boseman’s generally impassive character.
The story really gets underway in Brooklyn where two former marines turned small-time hoods (Taylor Kitsch and If Beale Street Could Talk’s Stephan James) show up at a restaurant to steal what they think is 30 kilos of cocaine. Instead they find 300, just as some cops show up at the door. That chain of events ends with eight officers dead, the loose cannon Kitsch and the more level-headed James racing into Manhattan, and Det. Davis trying to guess their next move with the help of a narcotics investigator (an unrecognizable Sienna Miller).
The commander of the precinct where the eight cops were stationed (J.K. Simmons) none-too-subtly asks Davis to ice the killers outright if he gets the chance. No one seems to think he’ll do it though, which is odd considering that he was being grilled just earlier by IA for knocking off too many suspects. But that’s just one of many inconsistencies in a script that plays like a first draft, introducing and then discarding plot points like playing cards. As the search narrows down to a seven-block area in lower Manhattan, it starts to dawn on Davis–long after we have figured it out–that the two fugitive cop killers may not be the only bad guys out there.
21 Bridges is directed by Brian Kirk, who’s helmed tons of TV episodes for shows like Game of Thrones, Penny Dreadful and others, but shows no particular affinity for big screen moviemaking here. His one standout piece of work is a foot chase (although there’s a car involved too) that takes Davis and his prey through a series of storerooms, kitchens and dank stairwells before finally descending into the subway.
Had 21 Bridges perhaps focused on just what it would take to ferret out a criminal from the vast labyrinth of dwellings, cellars, tunnels, and office complexes that make up Manhattan both above and below street level, it might have ended up being a far more diverting 100 minutes. But instead we get a rather personality-free protagonist standing alone against the usual array of crooks, shadowy fringe players and corrupt officials, with the villainy almost as broad as the heavy Brooklyn accents both Simmons and the impressively chameleonic Miller sport. Even a sprinkling of social commentary in the form of a late-in-the-game speech doesn’t do much to flesh out the story or its denizens.
21 Bridges was produced by Anthony and Joe Russo, who dazzled audiences these past two years as the directors of the epic Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame. This film is the first out of the gate since they’ve begun building their own production empire, but hopefully future projects will give us something to marvel at. In the meantime, all 21 spans, three rivers, and four tunnels in this would-be gritty NYC thriller lead exactly nowhere.
21 Bridges is out in theaters on Friday, Nov. 22.
Don Kaye is a Los Angeles-based entertainment journalist and associate editor of Den of Geek. Other current and past outlets include Syfy, United Stations Radio Networks, Fandango, MSN, RollingStone.com and many more. Read more of his work here. Follow him on Twitter @donkaye