The movie, 21 Bridges (2019), provided me with a reminder that being judgmental can impede our inability to look at multiple causes of human behavior and that desperate approaches to daunting circumstances can run opposite of the person we think we are and give the world an excuse to view us in a one dimensional view.
In 21 Bridges, director Brian Kirk tells the story of New York Police Department detective Andre Davis, played by the late actor Chadwick Boseman, who is in pursuit of two drug mules, Michael Trujillo, played by Stephan James, and Raymond Jackson, played by Taylor Kitsch. Unbeknownst to Michael and Raymond, the stash of cocaine they were sent to steal was part of a bigger load of drugs that was to be transported by four police officers. The crossing of Michael and Raymond’s path with those of the police officers led to a deadly shootout that left a number of cops dead and Michael and Raymond on the run.
From the beginning I was impressed with the solid acting which quite frankly drove this movie. If the viewer is looking for a throwback shoot ’em up going back to the Die Hard (1988) days, this movie is not it. From near the beginning, Mr Kirk started painting a picture of desperation on the part of the Raymond and Michael characters that went just beyond being on the run as cop killers. Stephan James and Taylor Kitsch were solid enough actors to convey this desperation and quite frankly had me rooting for them to get away. And this view of the characters started way before any suspicion that the cops they killed were “dirty.”
I admit that while I was impressed very early in the film with the story, I had reservations about whether the movie would devolve into an hour of irrationality and divergent sub-plots that would either be tied to the main plot with some ridiculous leaps of logic or, just as bad, not provide any dramatic value to the overall story at all. Mr Kirk assuaged my fears by avoiding collateral damage that straying sub-plots can bring. He set a framework for intelligence via Andre Davis, who we see from the very beginning of the story is a man driven by the murder of his father, a police officer, and took seriously NYPD’s role in protecting the city.
But like Michael Trujillo and Raymond Jackson, Andre Davis is carrying his own baggage. He is the NYPD’s version of “Dirty Harry”, having shot and killed nine people in eight years, and being investigated by internal affairs as a “trigger.” Mr Kirk was able to convey a suspicion held by Andre Davis’ fellow officers whether this smart but trigger happy cop would be able to find Trujillo and Jackson and put them down. Mr Kirk’s success in conveying this suspicion of Andre Davis along with the desperation on the part of Michael Trujillo and Raymond Jackson helped to unearth the underlying message of this movie: the need to dispel judgment.
As the story unfolds we learn more, via dialogue between Trujillo and Jackson that their actions were not driven by greed. Their actions were a reaction to a world that saw them as low value; to a world that underestimated their intelligence and character; to a world that they saw as making it hard for them to find their way. Three scenes help shed some light on this reaction.
First, when Trujillo and Jackson attempt to sell the cocaine they acquired, the dealer, Hawk, played by Gary Carr, attempts to low ball them, assuming that these two mules had no knowledge about the street value of the 50 keys of blow they were attempting to unload. Trujillo not only made his case as to justifying his asking price, he backed it up with sharing the details on how cocaine is usually cut and distributed and the current market price of the drug. Jackson then opines on his friend’s street knowledge: “He *is* one of those detail oriented motherfuckers.” Hawk, taken aback by Trujillo’s knowledge and attention to detail, had no choice but to acquiesce.
The second telling scene involved Jackson’s death. After a shoot out with Davis, Jackson, with his dying breath, says to Davis, “He’s not like us!” still trying to look after his friend Trujillo, trying to ensure his safety, knowing that in a few seconds he would not be on this Earth any longer to protect him.
The third scene involves a face-off between Trujillo and Jackson. While Stephan James brings a physicality to the work, what is most telling was his conveyance of emotion through his eyes. I have always been impressed with actors who can convey the narrative with facial expression and Mr James is superb in this respect. He let the audience and Andre Davis know that there was a human being there that had to be connected with.
I can’t end the review without circling back to the portrayal of the police officers whose attitudes, fears, and needs were expertly conveyed by veteran actor J.K. Simmons. Mr Simmons plays NYPD police captain McKenna, the commander of the police precinct whose “dirty” officers transport cocaine for a major dealer. You may have noticed that I put the word, “dirty”, in quotes. Why? It was during the penultimate scene where Davis confronts Captain McKenna about his precinct’s involvement in the drug trade that McKenna paints a story about cops who were not in the drug game for Rolexes or other material things.
His cops, who he saw as dedicated servants to a city that didn’t appreciate them, were going home to troubled marriages, facing bankruptcy or foreclosure, and committing suicide at an alarming rate. As McKenna bluntly puts it, ” I tell you what, anybody tells you money can’t buy happiness is full of shit.”
21 Bridges is not a morality play in the least for which I am glad because morality plays are too syrupy for me. From a cinematography view I think Mr Kirk failed on capturing the enormity of the task of shutting down the island of Manhattan, but made up for that lack of expansiveness by presenting more intimate scenes between the characters. More important was his ability to expose and share an important message on judgment.
Don’t judge. We are just trying to survive.