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Non-Review Review: 21 Bridges

21 Bridges is a solid, sturdy old-fashioned thriller.

This is both faint praise and gentle criticism. 21 Bridges offers a familiar set-up and premise, as a dogged detective hunts two suspects through the night. Although the film makes solid use of Chadwick Boseman as its lead, it is not impossible to imagine an alternate version starring Liam Neeson. It would arguably make a perfectly fine counterpart to Run All Night. The plot of the film involves a manhunt for two criminals who murdered several police officers during a botched heist, which gradually escalates into a full-blown conspiracy.

He needs more cop on.

It is all pretty paint-by-numbers. There is not a lot in 21 Bridges that surprises. More than that, there is very little in 21 Bridges that pops, that distinguishes it from other entries in the subgenre. This is both a blessing and curse. There is something comforting in the familiarity of 21 Bridges, in the way that movie never demands or expects more of its audience or itself than it promises to deliver. It largely succeeds at what it sets out to do, with minimal flourish or clutter. It moves through its plot with the same sense of purpose and focus as its protagonist.

21 Bridges knows exactly what it is doing, and mostly succeeds at doing it.

“Tonight, this island is Manhunttan.”

There is not a single twist in 21 Bridges that the audience won’t see coming. In fact, it’s entirely possible for a savvy viewer to map the trajectory of the film from that one-line plot summary. This is a significant problem in a film about a brilliant investigator. Detective Andre Davis is repeatedly and consistently blindsided by developments that the audience sees coming fifteen minutes into the film. A number of key plot developments hinge on Andre being hopeless naïve, despite the film’s best efforts to establish him as a ruthless pragmatist in his introductory scenes.

Similarly, the film largely eschews its high concept for conventional cat and mouse action. The movie makes a big deal of Andre’s title drop, as he instructs the authorities to seal the island of Manhattan to aid the manhunt. The music swells as he utters orders the closing of the eponymous bridges, setting in motion a sweeping montage that makes his subsequent directives concerning the river, the subway and the four tunnels seem comparatively insignificant.

Subway out on a limb.

However, despite descriptions of the plan to “flood the island with glow” and reports that liken the police intervention to a military occupation, it feels pretty much like any other cop-hunts-criminals-through-the-night thriller. There is no sense that there is anything unusual about this late-night manhunt. Suspects still drink in night clubs, business continues as usual in the meat-packing district, hotels don’t appear to be on any high alert. 21 Bridges would unfold in pretty much exactly the same way without that particular plot hool.

While this is slight betrayal of the whole “21 Bridges” premise, it plays with an interesting tension within the film. This is a mid-range eighties or nineties thriller in the superhero age, and bears all the markers of that. It is a starring vehicle for Chadwick Boseman, the lead from Black Panther. The trailers and publicity make a big deal of its connection to the directors responsible for Avengers: Endgame. Even the opening scenes set up the idea that Andre is “an avenger of evil.” The sealing of Manhattan plays as an allusion to Bane’s sealing of Gotham in The Dark Knight Rises.

Getting all Kitsched up.

What is interesting about 21 Bridges is the way in which all of these trappings feel almost like red herrings. To play Andre, Boseman has shed his superhero bulk. Dressed in loose-fitting suits and given a choreography that emphasises his lumberness as much has his strength, Andre feels more like one of the svelte heroes of the nineties than the dehydrated blocks of granite that define modern cinematic heroism. As Andre, Boseman looks like he would fit in with Keanu Reeves or Will Smith rather than any of the Hollywood Chrises. Similarly, the Russo Brothers are producing rather than directing.

The big action set pieces within 21 Bridges owe more to films like se7en than to movies like The Avengers, with characters navigating the city as a hostile labyrinth rather than an action playground. One of the movie’s more atmospheric sequences finds Andre chasing his quarry through an abattoir, hunting cop-killers as dead pigs hang on meat hooks. There is one chase sequence that seems to allude to Black Panther, a three-way pursuit in which Andre races against a car to track his suspect, but that seems to exist primarily to illustrate the impracticality of car fu in an urban setting.

John (Chad)wick.

There are even some small flourishes here from director Brian Kirk. The climax features a pretty inspired gun fight that plays like an eighties action movie riff on a Kurosawa samurai fight; it is sadly undercut by its refusal to hold the “who got hit?” beat long enough. An early funeral scene features a spectacular overhead shot in which cops in dress uniforms stand to attention like a wave rippling through a sea of black and white. Even the script offers a few delightfully hardboiled one-liners. “For guys like Ray, I’m natural causes,” Andre boasts at one point, a line worthy of Jason Statham.

These small elements are not enough to elevate a paint-by-numbers police thriller, if it needs elevating at all. There’s a sense in which 21 Bridges knows exactly what it wants to be. It’s crisp, clean, and unfussy. Like its protagonist, it hits (most of) its marks.

One Response

  1. I like Boseman but I’ll probably wait for this on DVD. It’s not screaming “theater money” for me at the moment.

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