“21 Bridges”

Directed by: Brian Kirk

Screenplay by: Adam Mervis and Matthew Michael Carnahan, Story by: Adam Mervis

Starring: Chadwick Boseman, Sienna Miller, Stephan James, Keith David, Taylor Kitsch, Alexander Siddig, J. K. Simmons

Trailer courtesy of STX Entertainment.

Here’s an interesting intellectual conundrum: the news is littered with crime and violence every night; so much so that we’ve become numb to its presence. We cringe when violence affects our children or when police are involved and yet we’re compelled to watch the news unfold.

Why then did Brian Kirk’s “21 Bridges” intrigue me so?

To wit, I’m a sucker for cop action – dramas. We’ve seen them many times before; some have been done well, others not so well. “21 Bridges” barely falls into the “done well” column, if nothing else because Chadwick Boseman has such a commanding presence on the screen.

NYPD Detective Andre Davis is a man of principle and strong character, but his methods are constantly questioned. The story by Adam Mervis (screenplay by Mervis, “The Philly Kid” and Matthew Michael Carnahan, “State of Play”) makes a point to drive this element of Davis’s character in the opening frames. As a young child sitting at his father’s funeral, the priest eludes to the fact that Andre would need to be strong, that he had more of his father in him in 13 years than most children his age.

Mervis and Carnahan offer us glimpses of the man that Andre grows up to be when we fast-forward to present day, though I question why we needed to see him sitting in front of an I.A. Board of Inquiry right out of the gate. The exposition feels forced though it doesn’t go to complete waste as it does allow the actual events that follow to flow without too much disruption, but it doesn’t necessarily allow us to better learn who Andre is.

“21 Bridges” is Brian Kirk’s feature debut. His work on ‘Game of Thrones,’ The Tudors’ and ‘Dexter’ amongst other cinematic shows plays well into this type of story. A duo of small – time criminals, Michael (Stephan James) and Ray (Taylor Kitsch) are out to lift a stash of heroin from a Lower Manhattan winery in what turns out to be a “wrong place, wrong time” scenario.

As an action – drama, Kirk brought in the expertise of BAFTA Award – winning cinematographer, Paul Cameron to help shift the drive of the film. Cameron, who won for his collaboration on Michael Mann’s “Collateral” was an excellent fit for the mostly night shoot capturing the frenetic urgency with which Michael and Ray need to escape; this in stark contrast to the methodical nature with which Davis recreates the murder scene using the evidence. It would have been fascinating to understand how his street-wise knowledge was developed, but the clock is ticking.

Immediately after Michael and Ray escape, Davis is called to the scene. There’s a bit of political wrangling as the NYPD and the FBI square off over jurisdiction, with no one wanting to take responsibility while at the same time putting the manhunt on a time clock: NYC never sleeps. The story didn’t make clear how Davis got the call, but he ends up partnered up with a narc, Frankie Burns (Sienna Miller); this after Davis is railed by the 85th Precincts’ captain, McKenna, played by a rather subdued J. K. Simmons.

The chase picks the film’s pace up shifting into action mode though it results in an awkward shift in the story’s dynamics: it can’t quite contain the chase and the underlying dramatic intrigue as, at every turn, Davis encounters resistance to solving the case. The implications of Burns’s presence are obvious and the story does a good job of holding the reveal as long as it can.

Boseman’s commanding presence on the screen plies the conviction of the character with the motion of solving the case, but the obviousness of the story doesn’t serve the character as well as it probably could have had the exposition happened more naturally.

“21 Bridges” recalls studio action – dramas with great aplomb, the intellectual curiosity of seeing the Black Panther solve a crime was satisfying; it plays the circular dramatic of F. Gary Gray’s “The Negotiator” matched with the frenetic action tempo of “Man on Fire” or “Déjà Vu”.

In spite of all this, I’m still numb from all the violence on the news.

R, 99 minutes, An STX Entertainment Release