In a world of endless sequels, prequels, and reboots, the idea of a simple cops-and-robbers R-rated thriller with no recognizable characters seems unthinkable. At the very least, it should be relegated to Netflix or some other streaming service. Instead, 21 Bridges opens nationwide, and we may have the biggest sequel machine of them all to thank for it.
Produced by Anthony and Joe Russo (the brother directors behind Avengers: Endgame, Infinity War, and several other Marvel movies), starring Chadwick Boseman (Black Panther), and directed by Brian Kirk, 21 Bridges is the anti-superhero movie that might have never existed without superhero movie money. It’s a bloody story about New York’s seedy underbelly with no clear good guys or villains in sight, and a parable about police corruption with no solution to offer.
In other words, it’s the kind of movie Marvel would never make. So it’s interesting that 21 Bridges is the first thing the Russos decided to throw their Avengers money behind.
“The luxury of coming off of movies like Infinity War and Endgame is that you can get complicated subject matter made in a difficult market for content like that,” Joe Russo tells Inverse. [Read our full interview with the Russo Brothers.]
21 Bridges is also a damn fun movie with a clever premise. When a late-night burglary in Brooklyn goes wrong, a pair of low-level criminals end up brutally murdering almost a dozen cops. After the killers escape to Manhattan with a million dollars worth of cocaine, the New York Police Department decides to lock down the entire city overnight (no tunnels, no subways, and definitely no bridges) as they begin the manhunt.
Most of the movie flips back and forth between cops and criminals, giving us a look at the investigation and the escape attempt all at once. The two criminals, played by Taylor Kitsch and Stephan James, both shine as burglars in way over their heads (James, in particular, gives a powerful performance). And as they race through Manhattan looking for a way out, a hidden world of corruption opens up to them even as the police close in and the city becomes increasingly claustrophobic.
Meanwhile, Chadwick Boseman plays a notoriously trigger happy detective brought on to run the investigation. Boseman carries himself with an intensity throughout 21 Bridges, whether he’s calling out the crooked cops who keep getting in his way or sprinting across midtown Manhattan. The entire performance feels a bit like Batman without all the tech, just a street-smart detective who knows how to run fast.
Boseman gets paired with Sienna Miller, who plays a narcotics detective with a bad mediocre Brooklyn accent. But aside from that one gripe, she’s a strong addition to the story. Miller’s not just a sidekick or a romantic interest, and in some ways, she’s a more interesting and conflicted character than Boseman himself.
Rounding out the cast is J.K. Simmons as a police precinct boss who’s clearly out for blood. He makes it clear early on that he’d prefer if these cop-killers end up dead in the street, rather than in jail and on trial. It’s not the first time the police in this movie play it fast and loose with the law, and for the Russos, that’s a central part of the movie.
“Police corruption has been dominating our national psyche for several years,” Anthony Russo tells Inverse. “Our goal with this film was to tell a thoroughly modern and relevant story about police corruption, so there can’t be an easy villain. Because if that were the answer, we would have solved the problem by now.”
Revealing too much of where this plot goes would be a pretty big spoiler, but this isn’t the kind of movie where spoilers are all that important. Sure, some characters aren’t as clean as you might think when 21 Bridges starts, but there’s no big mystery and no sequel to set up. I’m still not going to ruin it for you, but just be prepared for an ending that’s a little less clear cut than you might expect from the guys who brought you Thanos and the Infinity Gauntlet, though that doesn’t mean there’s no overlap between this movie and the Russo’s Marvel work.
“We like movies that you can chew on in different ways on different viewings,” says Joe Russo. “And I think one great way to achieve that is through very complicated characters who are in conflict with one another.”
21 Bridges certainly pulls that off — and then some. This is a movie that will reward multiple viewings, though whether the Russo Brothers’ producer credit and Chadwick Boseman’s star power are enough to drive a first wave of viewers remains to be seen. Using that Avengers money to make a gritty cop thriller is one thing, but getting people to actually see it in theaters in 2019 when you can just stay home and binge Disney+ is a whole other type of super-heroics.
21 Bridges hits theaters November 22.