As an actor, Chadwick Boseman doesn’t really do small. His resumé is littered with the biopics of giants: 42 (Jackie Robinson), Get On Up (James Brown), Marshall (Thorogood Marshall). And of course the king cat of them all, Black Panther, across four films and counting in Marvel’s cinematic universe.
21 Bridges finds him in the rare role of a mere mortal, NYPD Detective Andre Davis; it doesn’t take long though to see that Andre’s just another kind of superhero, invisibly caped. He has the tragic origin story (police officer father, killed in the line of duty), the killer skill set (calm, controlled, always willing to draw blood when the target on the other end of his gun deserves it), and the impossible task designed to test those skills (two ruthless cop killers, set loose in the city he’s sworn to protect).
It’s not a bad setup, and Bridges would be a better movie, easily, if it had let a little more nuance creep into its script. Instead, it lays the task squarely on Boseman’s shoulders — having him fill in all those broad strokes with his own fine lines, and spraying bullets and mayhem across the rest.
The whole cast, really, is generally too good for most of what’s happening here: Stephan James (If Beale Street Could Talk) and Taylor Kitsch as the desperados who go to rob 30 keys of cocaine from the walk-in freezer of a tony restaurant and find 300 instead, along with seven wrong-place-wrong-time beat cops they mow down in the heat of the moment; J.K. Simmons as the police captain who wants the perpetrators caught at any cost; Sienna Miller as a narcotics officer whose outer-borough accent must have come from some kind of Coney Island of the mind.
It’s Andre who makes the game-time decision to shut down every viable exit from Manhattan (hence the title) and smoke them out, and the FBI reluctantly agrees to give him until 5 a.m. — roughly four hours — to get it done (a conceit approximately 9 quintillion times more likely in screenwriting class than in any New York reality).
That’s when the movie becomes a tense, splattery cat-and-mouse in the hardbitten tradition of uncountable cops-and-robbers thrillers before it. Director Brian Kirk, an Irishman whose resumé lies mostly in prestige television (Game of Thrones, Luther) films a lot of the brutal action well, even if he’s overly fond of an overhead drone shot.
But the screenplay, by Adam Mervis and Matthew Michael Carnahan, keeps zigging nearly every time you wish it would zag, piling on heavy exposition and hoary lines (“Being a cop was not a choice,” “Justice comes at a cost”) that Boseman and James, particularly, seem aching to break free of. There’s a sharper, less expected drama lurking just at the edges here; but wishing for some kind of subtlety, particularly in the wake of the movie’s blood-soaked finale, might be a bridge too far. B