Davis has a way of getting himself into dangerous situations and has killed seven suspects in the field over the course of less than a decade. Hauled up before internal affairs, he insists his actions were justified in every case, though he looks less than chuffed when others on the force imply his track record should be a source of pride.
In an almost teasing way, the film seems to offer itself early on as an apologia for police violence, calculated to rule out possible objections. We can’t know for sure Davis’ defence of his behaviour is watertight, but in the present at least his behaviour is anything but hot-headed. He’s also black, ensuring neither we nor the other characters can accuse him of racism (the background of those he’s shot in the past remains a matter for speculation).
But all this is just the starting point for twists that will complicate the picture – and there’s also the more abstract side of the film, the chess game played out across the city. While Davis and his colleagues race to restore order before dawn, almost equal screen-time is given to the cop killers (Taylor Kitsch and Stephan James), not flat-out villains but petty crooks who have stumbled into a situation where they’re far out of their depth.
All up, there are nearly a dozen significant players, including a brusque but pop-culture-savvy narc assigned to work with Davis on the case (Sienna Miller, biting her lip like Jennifer Jason Leigh). Another key figure is a police captain (J.K. Simmons), who effectively hands Davis a license to kill, leading us to wonder how far he’ll ultimately take advantage of this privilege.
A journeyman director known for his work on TV shows such as Game of Thrones, Kirk shows neither the grandiosity nor the stylistic imagination that a filmmaker such as Michael Mann (Collateral) can bring to this kind of genre exercise. The potential for spectacle offered by the premise is a little underused, perhaps in part a consequence of a limited budget.
In many respects, 21 Bridges is a screenwriter’s movie (the screenwriter in question seems to be Matthew Michael Carnahan, who rewrote a previous draft by Adam Mervis). Beneath the generic surface it’s possible to discern the structure of a moral or even a religious parable, not too far removed from the work of, say, the Coen brothers.
The positive side to this is an insistence on humanising even the least likeable characters and on giving violence an unusual degree of weight, conveyed through the horrified reactions of several figures (particularly James, as the more mild-mannered of the two thieves) and through the recurrent scenes, shot in close-up, of wounded characters on the verge of death.
On the flip side, it means a story initially presented in terms of nominal realism winds up spinning off into fantasyland. The monologue that precedes the final showdown is obviously not meant to be literally plausible. And would a drug dealer dealing with an emergency in the middle of the night use a phrase like “detail-oriented”? I suppose there’s no reason he might not.