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21 Bridges
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by Jay Seaver

"Good at the basics, doesn't quite grab at something greater."
3 stars

There's a sharper version of "21 Bridges" to be made which targets the way police culture becomes toxic as opposed to mostly letting it kick around in the background, but I suspect that's a hard thing to believably isolate, and would bring in things the filmmakers weren't totally ready to deal with. As it is, it becomes a bigger version of a story we've heard a few times before, told with some style even if it misses an opportunity or two.

In the middle of the night, Micahel Trujillo (Stephan James) and Ray Stevens (Taylor Kitsch) rob a wine shop that they expect to have 30kg of cocaine in the basement; instead there's 300, more than they are ready to transport, and the manager of the shop has called the cops. Eight are shot in the ensuing firefight, and NYPD brings in Andre Davis (Chadwick Boseman) to direct the manhunt, teamed with narcotics detective Frankie Burns (Sienna Miller), likely not in spite of his reputation for being willing to use lethal force, but because of it. It's quickly established that the pair are in Manhattan, so Andre urges the city to close off the island until daybreak. The NYPD intends to be utterly relentless in running the ones who took out so many of their own down to ground, but Trujillo and Stevens are ex-military, with Michael smart enough to be a match for Andre.

The film opens with a scene of Andre as a child, attending the funeral of his policeman father, and it's built to be unnerving, built out of wide shots of a church while the preacher speaks not of forgiveness and sacrifice but of anger and glee that he was able to take two of his attackers with him. When the film cuts to Andre's latest Internal Affairs meeting, it becomes clear that he's spent his whole life steeped in that culture, enough that his making the proper noises about not shooting first or indiscriminately surprises and upsets the other officers. It's a point of view that might be made clearer if the film offered more than fleeting glances at a perspective outside of the police or their quarry, questioning the way that the police seem to respond much more enthusiastically to an attack on themselves than the people they're meant to protect. That idea is what gives the film a great deal of its tension in the early going but becomes a little less prominent toward the end, as the plot needs Andre to close in and writers Adam Mervis and Matthew Michael Carnahan don't really have the room to examine how corruption and entitlement are separate but entangled issues.

That's a shame, because the conflict between the police as a job and as a community at the core of most of the decisions facing Andre and what Chadwick Boseman has to play out, and he seldom faces them directly. He does good work nonetheless, never losing the pugnacious arrogance he's got in his first scene but making Andre's curiosity seem true and powerful enough for him to not entirely follow the path that everyone expects of him by the end. Intriguingly, Stephan James's Michael often plays as his dark reflection, a similarly smart and driven man brought up within crime the way Andre was within the police, though his practical morality compared to the folks around him often tends to be spotlighted at the start of the movie rather than at the end. They're both given good, useful partners in Sienna Miller and Taylor Kitsch (who probably gets the film's best line), and ringers like J.K. Simmons and Alexander Siddig flesh out the cast nicely.

Even stripped down to be mostly a chase, it's an impressively solid cop movie. The filmmakers are good at process, whether it's noting the practical issues in a robbery or making the part of detective work that is just sifting through data interesting; they never let things bog down or artificially keep one side a step behind. It's nicely paced and the action is a notch or two above similar action movies, with a couple scenes near the end standing out in particular: In one, the camera smoothly follows characters through tricky terrain, making what Boseman and James are doing physically look difficult but practiced, and always making sure that the audience can see how hot Andre is on Michael's tail even if they aren't quite close enough to share the same screen. Another takes care to establish lines of fire even when people are going to be shooting through walls, preventing the sort of separation of cause and effect that sort of firefight often features. The credits list Spiro Razatos as both second unit director and stunt coordinator, and though that's not a guarantee that everything will hang together better than usual (he has had both titles on films that aren't so well-executed), but director Brian Kirk puts everyone in a good position to succeed and ties it together well.

This movie could have been better; it's capable when it could be sharp, especially as it heads toward its conclusion. The good news is that Kirk handles the cops-and-robbers stuff better than most, and that lets the movie succeed on one level even if it doesn't quite make the jump to the next, hopefully auguring well for his next feature.

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originally posted: 11/25/19 09:25:15
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  22-Nov-2019 (R)
  DVD: 18-Feb-2020

  22-Nov-2019 (15)

  24-Oct-2019 (MA)
  DVD: 18-Feb-2020

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