‘21 Bridges’ deftly navigates tightrope of action, social pitfalls

Boseman isn’t playing the King of Wakanda in the movie – though he’s functionally a superhero when the gunfire starts – but he’s the king of every room he walks into. He makes Davis into a brilliant demonstration of his own charisma with his body language assumption of his own authority. Images courtesy STXfilms.

8/10 Is 21 Bridges exploitative? Is it cop-friendly propaganda? It’s a damn good action movie, is what it is.

In 21 Bridges, two hired assassins, Michael Trujillo and Ray Jackson (Stephan James and Taylor Kitsch), kill eight NYPD officers in a very strange cocaine heist. They duo discovers much more cocaine than they were prepared to move and is met by multiple cops who seem to have just been in the area. Lead detective Andre Davis (Chadwick Boseman) determines that Trujillo and Jackson almost immediately crossed into Manhattan after the robbery, which takes place around 1 a.m. In order to keep the FBI or state police from taking over the investigation, Davis orders the entire borough closed, giving himself four hours to hunt the killers down before the financial capital of the world reopens.

Davis’ cop father was murdered when he was 13, and he has killed nine people on-duty during his still-young career, all of which were determined justified, cultivating a reputation as the cop who kills cop-killers. Despite being a mass killer at this point, Davis repeatedly expresses his intent to bring Trujillo and Jackson in alive to figure out what happened during their initial heist. Davis finds himself racing not only against the clock, but against his fellow officers, all of whom seem eager to shoot anyone even vaguely related to the case.

21 Bridges is the low-range blockbuster face for a batch of blaxploitation that takes the consistent, headline-grabbing conflict between black Americans and police and makes it internal for the characters onscreen. Late October’s Black and Blue, which starred Naomie Harris as a black cop being hunted by both her peers and a primarily black criminal organization in New Orleans, was the vanguard, and Queen and Slim is the classier, Oscar-oriented offering.

Where the other two films address racial tensions directly, 21 Bridges weaves the imagery of #blacklivesmatter and #bluelivesmatter together in to more of a noir-esque cop story. With anxiety high about police with violent, racist pasts, the movie presents Davis, an officer with the most violent history and a member of the race most often targeted. The film’s opening, which is set in a primarily black church that seems to be very fond of police, quotes the same Romans 13:4 passage that’s featured in those disturbing Warrior Training videos that liken police to being Christian sheepdogs whose violence is inherently justified. The movie even ends in its own “hands up don’t shoot” moment.

Never quite catering to that sort of paranoia, 21 Bridges finds more wholesome ways to appeal to a conservative audience. The movie takes every chance to highlight how far out of their way not only Davis, but also the robbers, will go to avoid taking another life. There’s a great deal of attention paid to trigger discipline and shooting posture as well, the kind of thing most appreciated by people who respect weapons, but don’t fetishize them.

The other way 21 Bridges appeals to conservatives is with good, detailed, meat-and-potatoes action filmmaking. The shootouts in this movie are spectacular, loud and well-communicated, with strong geography and strong, clear decision-making by the principal characters.

The movie often teeters close to becoming the kind of completely ideologically pure thought experiment Ben Shapiro might like. “Let’s say, there’s a black police officer. Let’s say this officer was involved in several shootings, and in all of them, in every single one, he was the second to draw. Nine people fired at him and missed, and he killed all of them. Now let’s say he refuses to wear bodycams.”

The movie’s pitfall come in the form of its music, which is bad and made worse by many of its most powerful moments being composed of natural sound, either silence or gunfire. The action geography, which was a real highpoint, starts to break down when we go from shootouts to chase scenes. As more focus goes into the process of Davis’ investigation and the movie wears on without establishing a distinct aesthetic, it starts to feel less like a film noir and more like a particularly pompous police procedural.

The central sensationalism that threatens to consume 21 Bridges dilutes as it goes on. As the mystery unravels, everyone, cops, robbers, black and white, become the same, driven by desperation to do terrible things. Davis may have a reputation, but we never see it. In the end, the hero of 21 Bridges is the one cop who isn’t jumpy, who asks questions first and shoots second, who still values human life and the integrity of his badge over his less honorable colleagues.

Leopold Knopp is a UNT graduate. If you liked this post, you can donate to Reel Entropy here. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook and reach out to me at reelentropy@gmail.com.

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