21 Bridges (2019)

The Only Way Out is Through Him

When a couple of armed robbers, Ray (Taylor Kitsch) and Michael (Stephan James), kill a truly impressive number of cops during a late-night theft gone wrong, trigger-happy police officer Andre Davis (Chadwick Boseman) is put on the case on the understanding that the two perps probably won’t make it to trial. The problem is that, while Davis has racked up nine justified shootings over the course of his career, the key word in the equation for him is ‘justified,’ he is more concerned with finding out exactly what went down as opposed to chalking up some payback. That’s unfortunate for all and sundry, really, as there’s a conspiracy of corrupt cops all up in this thing — and keeping the lid on that is generally thought to be more important than the lives of all concerned.

Heroes don’t wear capes. They wear badges.

21 Bridges is named for the number of bridges connecting New York City’s Manhattan Island to the other boroughs, and if you’ve seen any trailers or what-have-you, you might be under the impression that Davis’ efforts to contain his criminal quarry to the island by dealing off all points of egress is a major part of the film. In reality, it’s a fairly minor plot point designed to keep the action contained to Manhattan and, while the result is a nicely claustrophobic, tense little thriller with a fantastic sense of place, it’s kind of weird that this element has been elevated to title-worthy status. 21 Bridges’ real concern isn’t geography, but morality — it’s about the people we empower to use lethal force on our behalf and how they’re misused and abused by the very institutions that employ them, whether they be a good cop with a liberal but still strict policy on shooting (that’ll be Boseman), or a couple of ex-military types who have turned to crime since coming back from Afghanistan because the world has no use for their skillset.

Which means it’s another in a long line of Cops ‘n’ Robbers films which mistrusts institutional authority but puts great stock in the personal morality of its protagonist. Boseman’s Andre Davis is not a million light-years away from Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry, and they’re both descended from the frontier lawman archetype, an anachronism from a time when a good guy with a gun really was the best you could probably hope for in terms of your law enforcement needs, and one that still holds a lot of cultural sway in the U.S. today. What’s interesting is that the film also has a lot of sympathy for both sets of nominal villains, the spray ‘n’ pray robbery duo and the corrupt cops out to eliminate them (no spoilers from me but a quick squiz at the cast list should leave you with enough info to figure out who’s running the show well before the film deigns to clue you in). They’re all people put in seemingly impossible situations and trying to do right by themselves and their loved ones, more or less. Davis’ superior ethical code makes him our hero, but it also makes him more reliable than the system he represents; there’s a great little speech late in the day that breaks down how hard the job is on police officers, and its presence in the film makes for a more intriguingly grey moral universe.

Cops or Criminals?

Not too grey, though — the heroes and villains are shaded, but not muddled, and we’re never in any doubt whose side we’re on, even if various factions have a point. As a thriller, 21 Bridges functions exceedingly well and is reminiscent of some of the fun urban thrillers the late Tony Scott used to make with Denzel Washington back in the day (indeed, it’s easy to imagine Washington as Davis right down to the line deliveries). The character’s blackness puts an interesting spin on his role as cannon-cop enforcer, too — we know what demographics are more likely to come off second in a police shooting, and so his position as someone who has no qualms about pulling the trigger reads differently than it would with a white character. We also get an early flashback scene in a black church on the occasion of Davis’ father’s funeral. Also a cop, Davis Sr. was killed in the line of duty, and we’re treated to the spectacle of the pastor praising him for managing to kill two of his three assailants before being overpowered, a sequence that sets Davis Jr.’s almost Old Testament worldview — while the world may be compromised, he remains resolute.

First-time feature director Brian Kirk, who cut his teeth on prestige TV like Game of Thrones (2011-19), keeps it all tight and snappy and makes a good fist of boxing in the fugitive robbers inside the frame. There are some fun, claustrophobic chase sequences and shoot outs here and there, with one particularly well-staged one taking place inside the bank vault-like home of a money launderer (Star Trek: Deep Space Nine’s Alexander Siddig). As a location, New York City is really well used, which may not seem like much, but when you’ve become accustomed to every second film being shot against a green screen in Atlanta, some decent location work that actually manages to capture some of the personality of the city is a welcome whiff of fresh air.

‘… it’s gonna be a long night.’

I retain a great deal of respect for films, notably crime thrillers, that set out their remit cleanly and proceed to meet it with a professional lack of fuss, and 21 Bridges is definitely one of those. Quick, clipped and boasting a solid roster of character actors (J.K. Simmons and Keith David show up, and Sienna Miller is pretty great as Frankie Burns, the narco cop partner Davis is saddled with for the duration), it does precisely what it says on the tin and not much more. If you’re in the mood for a solid, robust, low key thriller in the vein of, say, Ron Shelton’s Dark Blue (2002), David Ayer’s Street Kings (2008), or Jaume Collet-Serra’s Run All Night (2015), definitely give this one a spin.

3 / 5 – Good

Reviewed by Travis Johnson

21 Bridges is released through Roadshow Entertainment Australia