WARNING: The following article contains spoilers for 21 Bridges, in theaters now.
21 Bridges is focused on the fallout of a gunfight between two criminals and the police that leaves eight officers dead. But even though the film largely follows Detective Andre Davis (Chadwick Boseman), he's not the most compelling piece of narrative.
Instead, the eclectic and surprisingly unique criminals are the most engaging characters in the film, instead of its nominal heroes.
MICHAEL & RAY
Michael (Stephan James) and Ray (Taylor Kitsch) are two low-level crooks who both formerly served in the military. Ray and his best friend (Michael's older brother) signed up to serve overseas in Afghanistan. However, Ray's best friend was killed while overseas. Michael joined out of respect for his brother, but he eventually lashed out at a sergeant for unknown reasons and was dishonorably discharged.
Neither man seems content with their place in life: Ray is shown holding an AA chip, explaining his jittery nature as a man trying desperately to keep from giving in to his vices. Meanwhile, Michael just wants to escape and live out a peaceful life in hiding, away from the chaos of the city. Michael especially is in way over his head, only ever killing one person - the restaurant owner, who he came at him with a knife.
By the end of the night and despite their best efforts, neither man gets what they want. Ray ends up giving in and having a scotch while with the Cleaner, leaving his AA chip on his table. Not long after, he's cornered and killed by Andre, but not before shooting an unlucky civilian who was moving past.
Meanwhile, Michael figures out the truth as to why the cops are trying so hard to kill them: the 85th precinct is corrupt and taking part in the drug trade. He barely survives an onslaught of police activity, making his way into the subway. There, he's able to give the drives to Andre but is fatally shot by Burns (Siena Miller), dying while whispering the password of the file to Andre.
The Cleaner Adi (Alexander Siddig) is introduced as an associate of Hawk (Gary Carr) who can launder any amount of money that the criminals need. For a fee, he can take care of any pile of stolen cash and turn it it digital funds, creating bank accounts and identities with relative ease. He's also shown to be a calm and sophisticated gentleman, welcoming Michael and Ray into his fortified apartment and casually conversing with them about their plans to escape New York and reach Florida, where Adi has another friend who can make them passports. He even pours Ray a drink right after he gets a gun pointed at his face. It all makes Adi seem like a character from another, more stylistic thriller that just so happened to bump into this film.
But the cops - who Adi has also been working with over the years to launder the money they get from the drug trade - arrive on the hope of finding Michael and Ray. Adi tries to scare them off but takes a bullet to the eye for his troubles. Still, he survives long enough for Michael to drag him out of the line of fire.
Adi is able to tell Michael about the importance of the flash drives that contain the truth about the police cooperation with the drug trade in the city, and his final words are the password needed for the drive. Michael and Ray barely escape (taking their cash with them) and leave Adi behind. He's promptly shot in the head by the police, but he proves crucial to bringing down the corrupt 85th precinct.
The only one of the criminals to survive the film, and arguably the only character who gets a genuinely happy ending, is Hawk, a major drug dealer in New York City. While he may not be a supremely powerful figure, he's still a calm and level-headed gangster on the rise. He's introduced watching the news and working out on an exercise bike before plainly speaking with Michael and Ray. There are no outright threats or attempts at intimidation.
When Michael blames Hawk for not telling them there were 300 kilos of cocaine instead of 30, Hawk plainly explains that he didn't know that at all. All he heard was rumors about some drugs that could be stolen, and he simply hired Michael and Ray to do it.
It's refreshing to see a criminal in a film who isn't an overly charming killer or a hard-hearted killer. Hawk doesn't seem to want to mess around, but he's willing to talk and negotiate. He even lays out a lot of advice for Michael and Ray after buying the pure cocaine from them, suggesting how they avoid detection from the police. He's also insistent that he wants them out of his apartment, but he's not unnecessarily forceful about it.
The film ends with most everyone dead or in jail, and Andre bringing justice to the NYPD. But in the process, he just knocked out one of Hawk's biggest rivals and failed to connect him to the crimes. Now Hawk has $5 million worth of cocaine and one less competitor. If anything, Hawk won this film.
Directed by Brian Kirk and starring Chadwick Boseman, Sienna Miller, Stephan James, Taylor Kitsch and J.K. Simmons, 21 Bridges is now playing nationwide.