Brian Kirk’s crime drama suffers from bad writing, ham-fisted messaging, and an overwhelming sense of “been there, done that.”
21 Bridges is impossible to discuss properly and fairly without mentioning the real conflict at its center. The film isn’t about cop-killers as much as it’s about the interplay between justice and restraint. That’s not at all how the Russo-produced thriller has been marketed, but it’s necessary for those wanting to understand its stance and its approach before seeing it. Don’t worry, though: figuring out who’s dirty and why may be part of the fun for many viewers, so no more on that.
Half-baked and half-assed, Brian Kirk‘s action thriller falls prey to nearly every genre trope and narrative trip-up it can—and it’s okay with that. It’s a film with a clear agenda and an even clearer aversion to subtlety, a dispiriting remark on police misconduct that, instead of furthering the conversation, loses sight of what it’s trying to say because it’s just so damn into itself.
The film follows the rigidly intelligent Andre (a bored-looking Chadwick Boseman), an NYPD detective inspired by the heroic actions of his late father. Following an intense confrontation that leaves seven officers dead and sends their killers (Taylor Kitsch and Stephan James) on the run, Andre finds himself badge-deep in a conspiracy that runs deeper than he realizes.
The film’s message is simple and safe: “If you’re gonna be a cop, be a good one.” But like many of its creative choices, its decision to separate the dirty cops into their own distinct, drug-peddling unit ends up working against it.
Painting police corruption as a department-wide problem would have been smart, resonant, and true, and this film had the opportunity to hammer that point home. But it confines its corruption to a smaller subset of officers who, as one character lamely puts it, “just want to have lives.” So much of its narrative impact hinges on us not knowing what’s happening, which, disappointingly, makes the fact that we know who’s behind it from the beginning even more frustrating.
Many of the movie’s pivotal moments, namely ones where central characters are gunned down without fanfare, don’t carry the weightiness that such scenes demand. Along those same lines, the film treats its revelation to a stirring musical accompaniment it doesn’t earn, inflating its sense of self-importance and making its climax woefully underwhelming. Nothing about 21 Bridges is as punchy or impactful as it wants to be, and despite a handful of spirited turns in forgettable roles, the film largely fails to captivate in just about every possible way.
A film so shamelessly trigger-happy has no business preaching self-control, but that’s absolutely what 21 Bridges does. Fortunately, the film finds some balance (and some justification for its ham-fisted approach) in Andre. The film immediately and effectively establishes him as an enforcer who only fires when fired upon, and that characterization holds for the duration of the film.
Many of the movie’s pivotal moments, namely ones where central characters are gunned down without fanfare, don’t carry the weightiness that such scenes demand.
Andre is the film’s only case for restraint, mainly because he seems to be the only cop sane enough to not mercilessly murder people. But the focus doesn’t stay on him long enough for viewers to connect with him. The movie prioritizes its message over its vessel, almost always to a point of detriment. It so desperately wants us to rally behind its premise but can’t communicate its themes in a compelling manner.
21 Bridges may have wildly overshot, but there is a semi-solid movie half-buried here. With a more assured script and a sturdier foundation, the movie could have been something truly special.