Director Brian Kirk’s feature film debut marks a departure from his usual terrain. He’s been the magician behind the camera across an impressive array of recent television big-hitters like Game of Thrones, Luther and Dexter. So his talents should have arguably been well-refined to the point where stepping up for his first feature would seem like the next natural and logical step. Well, step up he does, but it may have been a bridge too far because he recites back at us the well-worn trope of the cop thriller we all became accustomed to by the end of the 90s. There’s nothing new, original or clever about 21 Bridges. So why did I have such a good time watching it? Crucially, it’s because Kirk knows what worked well about those Tony Scott-helmed stories, even films such as Desperate Measures, Internal Affairs and Collateral. He took the best elements of those and rather than reinvent them, laid them right out for us again. It was a paint-by-numbers effort, but all the colours popped beautifully even if the paint spilled over the lines a couple of times.
Case and point; how original does this sound as a plot summary? Livewire cop Andre Davis (Chadwick Boseman) is being hounded by Internal Affairs. He is forced into action after a cocaine robbery goes wrong resulting in the death of seven police officers. Working against the clock and against the FBI, he orders all 21 bridges that go in and out of the city to be closed, shutting down Manhattan, until he can find those responsible. So far, so familiar, but that’s not exactly a bad thing if it does what it says on the tin. Boseman, reunited with the Russo Brothers who act as producers here supporting one of their prized-assets, shows he is much more than cookie-cut Black Panther. He brings gravity and earnestness to the role, giving off early-Denzel Washington vibes. His performance is helped along by a tragic backstory you can believe in and a home-life which is established early on. His eyes tell half the story half the time. An intense look or a slight flick sideways letting us into his mind, allows us to follow the trail of the killers at the same pace he does.
He’s supported by some robust, if unspectacular, performances from some big hitters. J.K. Simmons plays Captain McKenna, out for blood following the death of several of his officers. A criminally underused Keith David as Deputy Chief Spencer, who should have been given more screen time, exists solely as the stand-in father figure Andre clearly needs. Taylor Kitsch plays Ray, one-half of the duo who end up killing the cops in the botched robbery. Ray is the typical loose-cannon, just back from Afghanistan and not quite the same since his buddy died. It’s he who is the cause of the bloodshed, yet strangely he’s the least interesting of the criminal partnership. The credit must go to Stephen James who plays Michael, completely out of his depth when the shit hits the fan. His performance is fantastic, as his disbelief, horror and regret everything that occurs over the course of the film is tangible and does the incredible in making you sympathise with a cop killer. The narrative cuts between Ray and Michael trying to stay two steps ahead of the cops with Andre hot on their heels. I caught myself halfway through wishing that the focus of the film had actually been on Michael only, following his journey and his attempts to escape. Given the inevitable set-up/conspiracy elements that ultimately unravelled it would have been fun to see it all play out from his perspective. Alas, it was not to be. Instead he is forced to share screen time and regrettably so are we, with the films greatest weakness;
Sienna Miller is not a good actress. There, I said it. So imagine my delight when early-on her narcotics officer Frankie Burns is forced to team up with Andre on his quest to track down the killers. Her American accent is jarring and the lines the writers have given her sound all the more cliched and ridiculous because of it. Her inability to hold a gun as she creeps around corners makes you wonder how Burns ever got through the police academy! She’s also a poorly crafted character, stuck in to add an extra dynamic and up the stakes, when really the entire audience would much rather Andre went it alone. There is a reason for her inclusion in the narrative, but it becomes so clear what the intention is that any grace or subtlety around it is replaced by annoyance and impatience. Several people in my well-behaved screening couldn't help it and vocalised their frustration whenever she popped up on the screen.
One of the other niggles I really had with this film was that two moments of epic revelation get dumbed-down wordy exposition dumps. I’d much rather a film shows me over the course of its run-time what is happening, rather than leaving it to a face-off over a kitchen table to explain what has come before. Yes, the seeds to the revelation are planted throughout the film, but I’d rather have worked out the reveal in detail for myself than have a character lay it all out for me. The same can be said for a moment where one character is exploring files on a PC. What pops up on screen should be a great ‘oh shit!’ moment, instead it was another case of hand-holding for the audience, talking them through it.
So 21 Bridges is not without flaws. One of the funnier ones being that during production it was originally called 17 Bridges until someone realised that there were actually 4 more! But despite Sienna Miller’s character, despite being unoriginal and despite the on-the-nose exposition it really worked for me. The reason being the duality of Andre and Michael’s journey through the film and the scintillating performances from both the actors involved. The plot was tight, it zipped along at a good speed, there was constant movement, energy and the stakes felt very high at all times for all characters. There are no great reveals, just reveals, and if you don’t manage to work out who is crooked and who is not, then you may enjoy it even more than I did. But it was a perfectly good effort and a fine film to watch at home with a pizza and some beers on a Friday night as long as you can bridge the gap between its good parts and its bad parts.