It wasn’t long ago that I was complaining about shaky cam and quick-cut editing ruining otherwise perfectly good B-movies. Almost from the opening scene, 21 Bridges is a balm for haters of blurry pictures and jittery editing. It’s a pleasant throwback to a more innocent time, when you could grab a straightforward genre title off the shelf at the video store and be reasonably content with what you got.
The action in 21 Bridges, mostly submachine gun work, has an elegance to it and real thump, probably on account of no one’s jerking the camera around in a misguided attempt at emotional truth. Simple camera moves, spatially lucid gunplay. Ah, remember that? It feels good, doesn’t it?
For at least the first half of 21 Bridges, directed by Brian Kirk (a veteran of premium cable shows like Boardwalk Empire and Luck) I thought I was watching a scruffy, working man’s Michael Mann, a kind of lunchpail take on Heat. Chadwick Boseman (Black Panther/Jackie Robinson/Thurgood Marshall/James Brown) plays Andre Davis, an NYPD officer whose origin story includes a cop father killed in the line of duty when he was a young boy and a subsequent career as a by-the-book hardass who we meet just as he’s explaining to internal affairs why he’s had to kill eight bad guys in nine years (Uh, because they were bad, you pencil pushers, duh).
When two ex-military buddies played by Taylor Kitsch (John Carter) and Stephan James (If Beale Street Could Talk) start dropping bodies during a botched cocaine robbery, Captain McKenna, played by the incomparable JK Simmons, knows just who should take lead on the manhunt: Davis, the cold-eyed hardass who drops bodies when he’s not dropping panties. For the detail, McKenna sticks him with a partner from narcotics, Frankie Burns, played by Sienna Miller, the latest in a long line of British actors doing terribly over-the-top regional American accents. Ay, we gotta catch dese friggin bad guys ova heah in da greatest city inna worl. Did I mention I’m friggin walkin’ heah? She sounds like she took a wrong turn on her way to the set of Gotti. Oh well, not every Brit can do it like Dominic West, Damien Lewis, or Hugh Laurie.
The two partner up just in time for Boseman to deliver the film’s title line (chug your drink!), when he orders the closing of all “21 bridges” separating the island of Manhattan from the rest of the country (I guess the title “Escape from New York” was already taken). Up until this point, 21 Bridges is still essentially a procedural, a less introspective, vaguely bootlicky version of Heat. Adam Mervis and Michael Carnahan’s script pits Boseman’s gruff cop against Kitsch and James’ government-trained killers who’ve screwed up. There’s empathy for both sides, but how much of that is because both sides are strong men in uniform? There’s a strong whiff of the kind of uniform worship and tumescence for tactical ops common to many action movies. Two double taps! Secure the perimeter!
At times, characters even bemoan Americans’ sorry lack of respect for veterans and the badge. (Do it, Daddy, stomp my nuts and call me a “bad apple”) But 21 Bridges isn’t quite that movie, and these soliloquies are mostly a misdirect — reflecting certain characters’ self-serving rationalizations rather than the film’s guiding ideology (BAD! APPLES!).
At a certain point it dawned on me that 21 Bridges is less a meathead Heat than a subtle blaxploitation film. (I may have come to this realization when a girl two seats over said “ooh, get him, Black Panther” during an action sequence — her running commentary greatly complemented the viewing experience). Boseman’s Andre Davis isn’t as openly “badass” as Dolemite or Shaft, but it’s a similar appeal, to unabashedly cheer a hero for our times — a cop who battles corruption as hard as street crime, who’s ruthless enough to kill when he needs to, and, notably, smart and brave enough to know when he doesn’t. There’s also a teary speech about the dangers of drugs, but that part is best overlooked (many good B-movies have a few minutes you just kind of have to ignore for the good of the overall experience).
21 Bridges is kind of dumb, but smart enough. It tells us that lots of cops are corrupt, but some are good. White people aren’t always evil but pretty close. Parkour? Sure, why not. It’s A-actors in a B-movie shot by competent craftsmen. Amazing what holding the camera steady can do, isn’t it? Simple pleasures delivered simply — there’s nothing wrong with that.