Chadwick Boseman is officially a made man in Hollywood. After earning acclaim for his dead-on portrayal of two of the most famous black men in the history of American culture (Jackie Robinson and James Brown), Boseman stepped into the blockbuster spotlight by taking on the most important superhero of the modern era: Black Panther. And that was just in a supporting role, then he had to make it or break it in a Black Panther solo movie which somehow had even more social and political relevance than when he played two real-life people. But Boseman had the poise, dignity and charisma to make it work, anchoring one of the most successful superhero films (let alone blockbuster films) of all time. So now he’s famous, super-famous in fact, and every move he makes will have the eyes of the world on it. But is Boseman able to handle that pressure?
For someone as big of a star as Boseman, it’s surprising to see him take on something as low-risk as 21 Bridges. There’s no franchise set-up, there are no major product tie-ins and no grand fanboy expectations. There’s just Boseman as stone-cold New York Detective Andre Davis, whose father was killed in the line of duty as an NYPD officer and who makes frequent visits to Internal Affairs because of his trigger-happy nature. One night, a case gets real for him: eight cops are gunned down by two trained shooters (Stephan James and Taylor Kitsch) stealing cocaine for a dealer. Davis is called in by Captain McKenna (J.K. Simmons) seemingly for his pension for shooting instead of arresting, but is assigned to work with Narcotics Officer Frankie Burns (Sienna Miller) to bring the suspects to justice. The clock is ticking before they escape, so Davis decides to shut down the entire island of Manhattan to sniff out the shooters.
21 Bridges is as bare-bones as it gets for a detective thriller, and that’s actually one of the things that works in its favor. It’s got a tight 99-minute runtime that zooms by, mostly because the story is flying by the seat of its pants. Every ounce of fat that usually comes with gritty crime dramas are cut from the story by Adam Mervis (The Philly Kid), there’s nothing but straightforward momentum propelling the movie. On the other hand, that sparse story doesn’t leave any room for interesting twists or even any unique character development. The script by Mervis and Matthew Michael Carnahan (World War Z, Dark Waters) doesn’t dig deep into Davis’s psyche or provide a meaningful reason for the two robbers to do what they do, on top of barely developing Burns and McKenna enough to be meaningful characters. Still, the grit of 21 Bridges in its shootouts (complemented by some sharp sound design on the gunfire) and blood make for an appropriately-macho atmosphere. Director Brian Kirk (Game of Thrones, Penny Dreadful) doesn’t have a distinct style to make 21 Bridges stand-out amongst a typical episode of Chicago P.D. or Blue Bloods, but he does get some cinematic overhead shots of New York City and wrangles a mildly-thrilling chase at the movie’s end. Visually and storywise, 21 Bridges skirts just above a direct-to-video thriller Bruce Willis or Nicolas Cage would normally be found in.
Boseman has been a lot of things in his career so far: distinguished (42), energetic (Get on Up), determined (Marshall) and valiant (Black Panther). On his first try at being a stone-cold badass, he’s merely scratching the surface. At times he uses his clear tone and sharp dialect to come off like he’s giving some dignity to the stereotype of a grisled cop. But others seem like he’s just putting on impersonations. Boseman has enough attitude and screen presence to get by, but he clearly wanted a better script to sink his teeth into some meatier lines. It’s actually James (If Beale Street Could Talk) who manages to break free of the underwritten dialogue and bring real emotional heft to his supporting role. He really shows the toll this takes on his character and the desperation to clear his own name. The emotional peaks of the movie come from his face-offs with Boseman, making you wish the movie focused more on the two of them in a game of cat-and-mouse. Unfortunately both men are stuck with partners asleep at the wheel. Kitsch, at the very least, has the look of an unhinged man willing to something as drastic as his character’s ability to quickdraw a semi-automatic. It’s Miller who has next to nothing to do in this movie and feels incredibly disposable. She’s given no meaningful depth or moments to flex any badass cop chops. The only defining quality is the British actress’s deep New York accent. Even Simmons gets more to do here despite only having a few scenes.
21 Bridges is destined for the bargain bin at Wal-Mart and the back catalogue of your local Redbox. It is nice to have a stripped-down, simple cop drama without any convoluted story elements or stupidity thrown in, but all that leaves is a drama that feels more like it was made in an assembly line rather than passionate filmmakers. Boseman, as an actor and a star, should not be in movies this disposable. It’s generous of him to take these roles, perhaps to keep himself grounded, but he deserves something that truly challenges him.