Sometimes, you can pinpoint with smart-bomb accuracy the moment a movie goes wrong. In the manhunt thriller “21 Bridges,” it concerns a mass murderer/”double tap” cop killer, an underworld “banker” he’s just held a gun on, and an Alcoholics Anonymous token.
Trigger happy Ray (Taylor Kitsch) has just been persuaded to drop the murderous threat, to work with Adi (Alexander Siddig), the quick-service money launderer, by Ray’s partner in crime, the guy (Stephan James) who helped him swipe “50 keys” of mob cocaine, starting the body count which is already nine, according to the news reports on the TV behind them.
Mercurial Ray whips out that AA token, lays in on the bar in Adi’s loft, and asks for whisky. All that slaughering (“double-tap,” remember) have given him a thirst that Red Bull won’t slake. With that token, screenwriters Matthew Michael Carnahan (“Lions for Lambs”) and Adam Mervis misguidedly try to not just humanize Ray, they soften him up so that we can sympathize with him. It comes out (in the police efforts to profile him) he was a vet, too.
Gosh, all that stress, the horrors he’s seen. It’s no WONDER he’s in AA. It’s no wonder that he latched onto a life as gun-for-hire. And it’s no wonder that he killed a bar full of cops as he and Michael (James) stumbled over a LOT more cocaine and a lot more complexity in what they’d thought would be a simple hold-up of a mob restaurant/drug storage waypoint.
“21 Bridges” goes steadily more wrong after that. And more’s the pity, because there was promise in what was supposed to be a taut tale of a detective (Chadwick Boseman) whose specialty is bringing cop killers to justice. He’s the one who orders the tunnels, ferries and “21 bridges” that connect Manhattan to the world closed down overnight to catch the guys who killed seven cops, left another mortally wounded, and murdered the restaurant manager in the bargain.
Det. Andre Davis is the son of a slain cop. We see the grim pageant of an NYPD funeral (sans bagpipes, this time) in the opening scene. And we hear Davis declare that “being a cop is not really a choice for me…it’s in my DNA,” and pontificate that “justice comes at a cost” at an Internal Affairs shooting review board hearing where his latest on-the-job killing is investigated.
“Justified shootings” have become a habit for this guy. And if Davis was played by anybody other than Black Panther, maybe his history would be more of a grey area, less righteous. So that when the F.B.I. shows up at the murder scene and refers to him as a “trigger” it would sting more. Davis has been called in by his chief (Keith David) and a precinct captain (J.K. Simmons) who have very specific requirements in mind for this manhunt.
Simmons’ Capt. McKenna lists, from memory, the officers slain. And “just so you know, they leave behind four wives, one fiancee. Six kids.”
Don’t put them through the ordeal of arrest and the public spectacle of a trial. Be the guy the F.B.I. just dismissed as an executioner, a “trigger.”
But Davis has questions about the first police on the scene. No alarm, no shots fired. No sign of forced entry. ”
“Why were they there?”
British TV director Brian Kirk (“Luther,” “Game of Thrones”) pumps up the pulse-rate in the early scenes, showing the two crooks arriving to find ten times as much cocaine as they were hired to steal, the heist going wrong, the hail of machine gun fire they use to shoot their way out.
We follow their pursuit through Det. Davis and his “all hands on deck…flood the island with Blue” strategy. Traffic control delivers the first clue, vehicle registration a second, a woman in “the life” looking at a red light camera photo and speculating on who these two might be a third.
The logistics of getting off Manhattan with millions in drugs, or payment for those drugs, and doing it while the clock is ticking, is fascinating too. You sell drugs to a mid-level dealer, he’s not paying you by check. Cash on hand? Bags and bags of $20 bills aren’t inconspicuous, thus the need for this banker. Adi? “He’s SWITZERLAND, man!”
Michael, the junior partner among the robbers, turns out to be the brains, reluctant to spill blood and thus more sympathetic.
Davis has a sidekick for the night, a narcotics cop Frankie Miller (Sienna Miller) who has no more qualms about shooting the bad guys than her captain. There are cops AWFULLY eager to “put those two down.” Davis? We reflexively expect higher mindedness, a nose for “justice” and a suspicion from him because of Boseman’s casting.
Look at the elegant, cool and super-heroish way he flashes his badge in scene after scene.
Giving Davis more of an edge would have made the pursuit more of a moral dilemma for him, that “Black and Blue” quandary of a cop who senses bad cops all around him even though he’s been avenging his father’s murder with every “righteous kill” he carries out.
But the manhunt, complete with shootouts, chases on foot through Manhattan’s meatpacking underbelly, could have gotten by without that little extra nuance of doubt had Kirk not repeatedly pumped the brakes — stopping the picture cold as Davis repeatedly confronts and negotiates with the killers.
The film’s flow is also interrupted by that second line of pursuit, the one we’re not privy to. For all the split second timing of tips, clues and sightings, the sprinting Davis and Burns are often the second police to arrive at this dark street, that salsa bar.
Too little is made of the actual closure of the bridges, of the tightening net closing in on the pursued.
Maybe “21 Bridges” could withstand sops to the stars (“Let’s make the murderous bad guy sympathetic.” “Let’s make the hero righteous, not sketchy.”). But as any fan of police procedurals knows, nothing kills a tense “ticking clock thriller” quicker than stopping that clock.
MPAA Rating: R for violence and language throughout
Cast: Chadwick Boseman, Sienna Miller, J.K. Simmons, Stephan James, Taylor Kitsch, Alexandder Siddig and Keith David
Credits: Directed by Brian Kirk, script by Mattheww Michael Carnahan and Adam Mervis An STX release.
Running time: 1:39