Joe and Anthony Russo have earned themselves quite a lot of clout over the last few years, thanks to successful TV work (Arrested Development and Community) and their blockbuster work in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, where they helmed two Captain America movies and the conclusion of Phase 3 via the Infinity War. Given the amount of goodwill they’ve accumulated over the last decade, one would think it would be a surefire hit to see them collaborate once again with Black Panther himself, Chadwick Boseman (they directed him in Civil War), for a gritty action thriller about hunting down cop killers in New York.
Sadly, that’s not what happened. Rather than a tense, compelling, nuanced look at the violence inherent in police work, the Russos handed the reins to TV director Brian Kirk, making his feature debut, and any hope of quality went right out the window. Because while Kirk does know how to direct action set pieces (he directed three episodes of the first season of Game of Thrones, for example), it’s clear he’s got a ways to go on dialogue, character, and messaging, because 21 Bridges, the finished product that debuted last week, is little more than a polished turd, a completely illogical and borderline blasphemous police shoot-’em-up that goes absolutely nowhere.
It’s the latest in a string of movies where the trailer is overly dishonest about the story, and a clear case of test audiences hating the end result. The movie was heavily marketed earlier this spring, because it was slated for a July release, with STXFilms thinking it might be a summer blockbuster. Instead it got pushed to September, and then again to November, where it was unceremoniously dumped in a weekend that was sure to be dominated by Queen Elsa and Mr. Rogers. That should have told me all I needed to avoid this piece of garbage, but I can be a masochist sometimes.
Anyway, the film is led by Boseman as Detective Andre Davis, the son of an NYPD officer who was killed in the line of duty. The film opens with his father’s funeral, where a young Andre literally has a single tear traced down the side of his face the entire time. Like, even when he leaves the church for the procession, that single tear line is still there. No one wipes it away. It doesn’t dry. He doesn’t shed another tear. It’s immediately off-putting.
The loss of his father (who famously took two of his killers with him as he died while a third assailant got away temporarily) supposedly turned Andre into “the cop who kills cop killers,” and as evidence, we’re treated to a standard-issue clichéd scene of him being defiant with NYPD Internal Affairs, who are questioning his latest shooting. He’s shot nine suspects over the course of a decade, so clearly he’s a loose cannon. Do we ever hear justification for his actions? Of course not. We’re just here to establish that the system is against him. It might have been interesting if a racial component had been explored, because as we’ve seen over the last several years, no white cop would be held to such scrutiny. But not only is Andre getting raked over the coals, it’s coming from other black cops. I’m already rolling my eyes so much I can see my own ass. It also doesn’t help that after his interrogation he visits his mother – clearly suffering from Alzheimer’s – as a means to humanize him, yet we never see her again, nor is she ever mentioned again. Yay story structure!
One night, two small time crooks named Ray (Taylor Kitsch) and Michael (Stephan James of If Beale Street Could Talk, a highly superior film that I wouldn’t blame you for a second if you stopped reading right here and watched it instead) go to a restaurant well after hours to swipe some cocaine meant for a rival dealer. They thought they were boosting 30 kilos of coke, but in fact there are 300. This unforeseen variable rattles them, and just as they’re trying to figure out their next move, four cops show up, clearly there for their own corrupt coke deal. The situation quickly devolves, and before you can bat an eye, the manager of the restaurant and eight officers are dead thanks to Ray’s skills with military-style weapons, and he and Michael are on the run in a BMW (why are you robbing a joint and claiming you need money if you drive a goddamn Beamer?), looking for some way to escape with their lives and the money for this job.
Andre is called to the scene to piece the crime together, and to figure out the next steps. One of the leading officers on the scene, Captain McKenna (J.K. Simmons, not even bothering to hide the fact that he’s just cashing a check here) assigns a narcotics detective named Frankie Burns (Sienna Miller) to aid Andre on the case. Both of them (as well as two other detectives on the scene) are clearly upset, and they don’t mask how inappropriate they’re dealing with the situation, as they demand in no uncertain terms that Andre live up to his epithet and straight up murder the suspects when he finds them. No trials, no due process, just kill them without prejudice. After a dick measuring contest with some FBI agents sent by the mayor’s office, Andre comes up with the eponymous scheme of the film, to shut down all 21 bridges off of Manhattan island (as well as closing the rivers, train stations, and bus depots) to isolate the suspects and close the walls on them. Never mind that they never actually attempt to escape via any of these bridges, it just sounds like a cool thing to do, even though it’s meaningless. Maybe it makes sense if you’re chasing drug traffickers but don’t know their supply routes, or if you’re trying to break up a mob summit. But for two petty criminals who got in way over their heads? Why bother? Except, of course, to make sure they don’t live through the night. The NYPD will have its pound of flesh.
At this point I’m firmly calling bullshit. Never mind the fact that the inciting incident of this film is a complete fantasy (a quick search of the 900+ NYPD officers who’ve died in the line of duty will not yield more than three results on a given day other than 9/11, much less eight on a single botched drug deal), but literally everyone is a stereotype. Andre is hot-headed, but cares about truth insofar as it can be used to “protect the shield.” He also speaks like Sean Combs after smoking a bowl. Burns has the worst New York voice I’ve ever heard. Rosie Perez in White Men Can’t Jump is more eloquent. McKenna is literally advocating extrajudicial murder in the same breath that he mocks Mayor Bill de Blasio (not named) because he’s not a “friendly” mayor to the NYPD (God forbid someone hold corrupt cops accountable) and eats pizza with a fork, all while he justifies his actions as standing up for “his guys” because they’re trying to make ends meet and raise families. Remember kids, it’s okay for those enforcing laws to break them with impunity if they have some convoluted “good intentions” behind it.
The ensuing manhunt for Ray and Michael is a poorly-executed trope fest. The pair use their handler (Louis Cancelmi) to get more cash, right before he’s tracked down and murdered by cops in “self-defense” at a nightclub. The detective who shoots him even plants his own sidearm as evidence of the “threat” that was allegedly posed. The fugitives get to a cleaner (Alexander Siddig, who I wish would get better roles because he’s a tremendous actor) for new identities and a way off the island, only to be met by dirty cops so quickly that it’s impossible for them not to have been tipped off. And every time Ray and Michael seem cornered, and try to plead and explain how utterly fucked up the situation is, the refrain is always the same: “Don’t listen to them, Andre. Shoot. Kill them.” Even when Andre radios in that the suspects MUST BE BROUGHT IN ALIVE, they’re getting shot at from helicopters without a moment’s hesitation.
It’s all so gratuitous and insulting to our intelligence. Apart from Andre, there are, maybe, two other police characters who a) have lines, and b) aren’t crooked. What was sold in the trailers as a taut thriller about choking out cop killers and potential organized crime links turns out to be two fuckups who apparently the entire NYPD agrees have to be killed to silence them, lest their own corruption be exposed. Again, this can be intriguing and entertaining, but everyone is so transparently evil and overly violent that there can’t be any real investment in anything that happens. It’s almost as if the first two policemen killed were named “Subtlety” and “Nuance.” From the first 10 minutes you can easily predict where things are going, with the only variables being how high the body count will be, and in what order it will be stacked.
And there are so many dangling plot threads that are never resolved. As mentioned, we never see Andre’s mother again after that first moment meant to make him seem sympathetic rather than a one-dimensional killer. The FBI guys who try to take over the investigation give Andre until dawn to track the suspects down, allowing the film to basically play out in real time, which again, can be very fun, but apart from one stern warning about a ticking clock – which again comes from the black agent; it’s as if this film wanted to avoid the racial elephant in the room entirely apart from one line where Andre responds to being called a “trigger” – it’s never brought up again. Burns has a daughter she wants to protect, but apart from a line here and there and a wallpaper photo on her iPhone, the daughter is utterly irrelevant.
Nearly 20 years ago, Training Day served as the prime example for this type of good cop/bad cop story, and it was driven home by Denzel Washington as Alonzo Harris noting that no matter what they do, they could get killed by gangsters or other cops if they don’t play ball, and all the world will know is the boiler plate news report about how the officer served honorably and was bravely cut down in the line of duty. Here, it’s more a matter of how much outright crime one precinct can commit without even bothering to attempt to cover their tracks, knowing they can always cap the one honest guy who might expose them with no proof.
There are serious discussions that need to be had about police brutality and people with bully attitudes working jobs where they can enforce laws without obeying them themselves. Hell, without even talking about violence, just drive around Los Angeles on any given day and watch the cops cut people off in traffic without using a turn signal, daring you to call them out and give them an excuse to make your life miserable.
But this is not the way to have that conversation. This is a film that wants to have it both ways – expose the crooks but protect the shield – without knowing how to make either point and just resorting to more guns when the moment comes to actually reckon with something. Chadwick Boseman is a fine actor. In fact this cast is filled with great talent. And it’s all wasted in multiple hails of gunfire and entry-level bullshit political posturing.
Something tells me there’s a reason the Russos didn’t direct this themselves.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? What do you want to see in a cop flick? Why would the suspects not have a place to hide anywhere in Manhattan? Let me know!