' ' Cinema Romantico: 21 Bridges

Tuesday, March 10, 2020

21 Bridges

The title “21 Bridges” isn’t so much a misnomer as a sleight of hand. It refers to the 21 bridges in and out of Manhattan, of course, which an NYPD Detective André Davis (Chadwick Boseman) demands be closed after two cop killers elude police when their cocaine heist goes awry. The Deputy Mayor acquiesces, sort of, giving Davis and the narcotics detective with a name straight out of a Springsteen song, Frankie Burns (Sienna Miller), who is assigned the case too, until 5 AM to nab the bad guys. That suggests a thriller, but “21 Bridges”, despite requisite chases and gunfights, never quite becomes one. Indeed, if André’s big speech about closing the bridges never achieves the lofty entertainingly melodramatic heights of Tommy Lee Jones’s aria about going after “The Fugitive”, Dr. Richard Kimble, that’s partially because Boseman and director Brian Kirk don’t want it to. No, those 21 bridges ultimately come to symbolize the routes taken by intrepid NYPD into a city they serve and protect but where they can’t afford to live, downtrodden and put-upon and wanting theirs no less than the killers trying to score that cocaine.

After initially setting up André’s backstory, son of a cop who is killed ruthlessly in the line of duty, “21 Bridges” shows us the heist in its entirety, not to empathize with its criminals, Michael Trujillo (Stephan James) and Ray Jackson (Taylor Kitsch), who are portrayed as dangerous and violent, but to demonstrate they are simultaneously in over their heads, walking into what they think is a minor-league heist only to find themselves face to face with more cocaine than they were expecting and a team of police who show up on the scene far too quickly. The robbers, then, must shoot their way out, foreshadowing a movie in which the default mode of action setpiece is just spraying bullets every which way, sometimes effective on a level of sympathy, shifting ours throughout, but less so on an aesthetic one, never achieving the balletic gunplay of a John Wick joint, never mind the poetic rat-a-tat-tat of Michael Mann.

Arriving at the crime scene, the principles of detection tell André and Frankie that the bad guys will unload their score before fleeing, causing the order to lock down Manhattan to lock them in. That puts the movie on clock, literally, even, as a time stamp flashes on screen. Yet if this suggests a suspenseful countdown, what’s odd is how few times “21 Bridges” returns to that literal clock, underscoring just how little tension is created despite such a crackerjack set-up. And if Kirk demonstrates little sense of suspense, he’s equally unsuccessful at conveying scale. Perhaps it’s because he was shooting in Philadelphia rather than New York, causing him to switch between first and second unit footage, but, whatever the case, the herculean undertaking of shutting down Manhattan is not conveyed in any way whatsoever, written off to a few news reports in the background. And though the film’s pace is generally fast, the interchangeable action never elicits a sense of the walls closing in on the criminals.

That “21 Bridges” fails to excite is because it’s so wrapped up in unraveling its mystery, one tied back to the overworked and underpaid cops. It’s a twist that might have resonated had the movie done more world-building connecting to the idea of the words contained within the monologue functioning as reveal, aside from Frankie’s daughter, who is never seen, just referenced, a plot point, nothing more, while the turn of Frankie toward the end is not filled out with enough desperation by Miller. Alas, by improperly laying the emotional and situational groundwork, the cops and their ostensibly complex emotional ordeal fall by the wayside, reducing them to mere antagonists to André . And if he is set up as a guy too quick to pull the trigger, Boseman never exudes such an itchy temperament, playing more to the idea of a bloodthirsty monologue delivered by a preacher in the opening scene at the funeral of his father, rendering him as the chosen one, in a manner of speaking, underwritten by God. His skin color, thankfully, is just implicit, never explicit, and that adds a little gravity to the situation, though ultimately he never becomes more than a less exciting modern mashup of “Dirty Harry” and “Serpico”.

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