This streets-of-New-York cop drama — shot in Philly, which should tell you something is off — has all the ingredients: adrenalized action, gritty atmosphere and a ready-to-rock cast, led by the Black Panther himself, Chadwick Boseman. How do you screw that up? The prosecution offers as Exhibit A. The skilled TV director Brian Kirk (Game of Thrones, Luther, Penny Dreadful), in his feature debut, huffs and puffs to keep the plot spinning. But he can’t blow down the dead end of a script by Adam Mervis and Matthew Michael Carnahan. The initial premise of 21 Bridges is not without promise: To catch two cop killers, played by Taylor Kitsch (doing deranged like nobody’s business) and Stephan James (taking it down a notch from Homeland), the mayor closes all 21 bridges in and out of Manhattan. Once the rats are cornered? Kaboom!
Or it would be “kaboom” if the script didn’t fizzle out right from the start. In a solidly constructed conspiracy thriller you shouldn’t see the conspiracy coming. Here, the heroes and villains are clearly labeled. Boseman is good cop Andre Davis, a detective with a rep for catching cop killers. Sure, Internal Affairs is eager to nail him for excessive force, but Davis knows when to keep his temper in check, at least temporarily. Still, our man smells a rat when his boss, Capt. McKenna (J.K. Simmons), tells him to forget the rules and execute the bad guys who slaughtered eight of his officers. For Davis the set-up stinks too much like a set-up. For instance, how did the police show up so fast at the crime scene to collect 300 kilos of cocaine that the cop killers left behind? So Davis sets out to solve the case with the help of hardass narcotics detective Frankie Burns (Sienna Miller, way too fine for such routine duty).
The audience is so far ahead of Davis it could probably write its own better script on the spot. Background details include the facts that the cop’s mother has dementia and his policeman father died in the line of duty, none which has anything to do with, well, anything. Boseman is basically playing Gary Cooper in High Noon, one man alone against a corrupt system. Serving as its own “I Hate New York” poster, the movie presents the Big Apple as a modern O.K. Corral where dirty cops and drug runners shoot it out while citizens either run for cover or become collateral damage. Davis and his boss have a face-off lifted straight from the one Kevin Spacey and John Cromwell had in L.A. Confidential, a classic crime drama that shows up 21 Bridges for the limp-dick imitation it is.
Oh, remember that thing about the bridges being closed? The movie drops that idea almost immediately, after only a few glimpses of the shutdowns on TVs in bars and restaurants. We could give you 21 reasons not to see 21 Bridges — and not single one that’s worth the price of admission.