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The Pleasure of Deeply Mediocre B-Movies Like ‘21 Bridges’

Chadwick Boseman’s new cop thriller isn’t anything you haven’t seen a million times before. But in our franchise-crazed movie world, there’s something comforting about its predictability.

21 Bridges is an utterly disposable B-movie that very few people would care about except for the fact that it stars Black Panther. Chadwick Boseman is Andre Davis, a no-bullshit New York detective who goes after a couple crooks who stole a bunch of drugs and killed some cops. Andre is assigned a partner, Frankie Burns (Sienna Miller), who will help him over the course of one frantic night. (Andre has had Manhattan law enforcement close every bridge, tunnel, train route and waterway into or out of the city, but he and Frankie only have a few hours until the blockade is lifted.) Andre’s manhunt will uncover more than he anticipated, however, including corruption within the NYPD.

I hope I’ve adequately conveyed how generic this film is. (If it helps, I’ll add that Andre and Frankie don’t get along at first, but sure enough, they’ll eventually earn each other’s respect.) The bad guys have vaguely foreign accents; Andre’s superiors all bark their dialogue; and although the movie is set in New York, you can tell it wasn’t all shot there. (Philadelphia occasionally pinch-hits for the Big Apple.) The twists happen right on cue, and you can see the revelations coming a mile down the road. Thumbs down, wouldn’t recommend.

And yet, I can’t say I minded watching 21 Bridges, which belongs to a subset of action-thrillers that are a poor relation to the swaggering blockbusters that now dominate the release schedule. Every Marvel movie, every Star Wars film, every adrenalized sequel presents itself as a major event — the stakes for the characters are always life-and-death. By comparison, a film like 21 Bridges is almost defiantly minor — it doesn’t have a soaring budget, wall-to-wall effects or anything new to say. And outside of Boseman, who became a superstar thanks to Marvel, it also doesn’t have any big names. Quite frankly, 21 Bridges is the sort of movie Hollywood doesn’t have much use for anymore. Which might explain why I feel a certain amount of fondness for its shabby modesty. There’s something so refreshing about these little B-movies that just go about their business, blissfully unconcerned about keeping up with the Black Panthers.

What has been overlooked in the largely idiotic debate surrounding Martin Scorsese’s perceptive and moving New York Times editorial about the Marvel-ization of movies is that the Oscar-winning filmmaker is absolutely correct that the big event pictures are threatening the survival of lower-budget movies. Studios are more willing to spend $250 million on a superhero film, which will usually turn a sizable profit, than risk backing a grownup period drama, such as Motherless Brooklyn (which reportedly cost $26 million), which could tank. As Vanity Fair’s Nicole Sperling pointed out earlier this year, the mid-budget movie faces huge obstacles from two sides: the blockbusters and streaming services like Netflix. The thinking at studios these days is that, in order to compel audiences to get off their couch to see something in the theater, the movie had better be momentous and stuffed with spectacle.

In such a reality, a nothing B-movie like 21 Bridges shouldn’t exist, although it’s hardly the only outlier. Last month, the Naomie Harris thriller Black and Blue was a perfectly respectable barebones action film, offering the back-to-basics pleasures of one good cop pitted against a city full of crooked policemen and dangerous criminals. Still, there’s something inherently secondhand about these kinds of films, which recycle done-to-death storylines while trying to add some contemporary spin. (In Black and Blue, that hook is police brutality; for 21 Bridges, it’s the pressure that cops feel on the job.) Perhaps not surprisingly, these are movies about ordinary folks — not superheroes — facing everyday villains. They exude a workmanlike efficiency. And they often have unremarkable titles that sound like they should be straight-to-VOD jobs. (For example, these are the names of some of Bruce Willis’ recent VOD movies: Reprisal, First Kill and Extraction.) The modern B-movie doesn’t put on airs and also doesn’t worry too much about being great. Good-enough is good enough in this realm.

But these shabby knockoffs can be liberating for a movie star who just wants to kick it in a grubby genre exercise. Boseman, who produced 21 Bridges (along with Avengers: Endgame directors Anthony and Joe Russo), is well-suited for this kind of gritty thriller. When he’s played shiningly noble figures like Jackie Robinson and Thurgood Marshall — in 42 and Marshall, respectively — his charisma and edge suggested he knew those staid movies were holding him back. (This is why my favorite performance of his is in Get On Up: He harnesses every bit of James Brown’s super-charged attitude.) Even as Black Panther, Boseman feels a bit hemmed in, dutifully depicting the character’s excessive dignity. (T’Challa doesn’t get to be as much of a smart-ass as his Marvel cohorts.)

As Andre, however, he’s smart and steely, ready for any situation, unafraid to take chances. In 21 Bridges, Boseman seems a bit relieved not to have to worry about carrying a franchise — or, specifically in the case of Black Panther, have to worry about the pressure of proving that a black superhero movie can be commercially successful. It’s fun to watch him simply cut loose.

That getting-away-with-something quality is central to B-movies’ appeal: They’re not beholden to the same rules that govern event films, which are largely orchestrated corporate operations. For one thing, a B-movie will almost certainly never get a sequel, so it can just… end! (Think how novel of a concept that is nowadays. 21 Bridges doesn’t leave us on an ambiguous note that prepares us for a possible second installment on the horizon.) Also, the plots are usually stunningly simple, not connected to some larger cinematic universe. The Shallows is about a woman fighting a shark. The Grey is about some guys fighting a pack of wolves. 21 Bridges is about Boseman catching some criminals. The basicness of the storyline is entirely the point: With these movies, we just want to see the main character do the thing he’s supposed to do. Easy-peasy. 

Plus, there’s something deeply satisfying about how threadbare a modern studio B-movie is. Because they don’t have all the bells and whistles of a typical blockbuster, they tend to be a little ornerier, walking around with a chip on their shoulder. Put another way, they don’t give a shit. 21 Bridges isn’t trying to court the widest audience possible, so it’s rated R, which means lots of nasty violence and bad language. It’s an impolite, snotty film that relies on old-fashioned suspense techniques, like people running after other people, or people engaged in hand-to-hand combat, or the bad guy holding the good guy’s partner at gunpoint. Movies like 21 Bridges don’t have the budget for pyrotechnics, so they have to resort to inexpensive workarounds. But those shortcuts end up bringing a really pleasing tactile quality to these films. The modesty of the action is something of a relief. It’s all human-scaled and, therefore, often more gripping in a gut-punch sort of way.

Every once in a while, a B-movie grows up and becomes an unexpected franchise: The first John Wick was the very model of low-budget, high-octane action. But most stay in their grimy lane, delivering their cheap thrills far away from the blockbuster realm. 21 Bridges isn’t good, but I’m glad it exists since there seems to be so little room for movies like this anymore. 

Recently, Boseman criticized Scorsese’s negative stance on Marvel, but he didn’t address the director’s central point, which is that movies trying to exist outside of the amusement-park model of mass entertainment are going to have a tougher time in the current marketplace. A B-movie like 21 Bridges is up against that problem as well. It may not be art or cinema, but its low-stakes immediacy has its place. Man does not live by superhero movies alone. The occasional slab of retread genre junk can be a nice palate cleanser.

Here are three other takeaways from 21 Bridges

#1. It’s fine to eat pizza with a fork.

In 21 Bridges, Andre’s superior officers make a snide remark about New York’s unnamed mayor, mentioning that he can’t be respected because he eats pizza with a fork. The throwaway line got a mild chuckle from my audience, who recognized that New Yorkers have a really weird aversion to men who use cutlery with their pizza. This attitude is dumb.

For those who need a refresher, Newsweek ran a piece in 2016 that catalogued different politicians who have incurred the public’s wrath by eating pizza with a knife and fork. The article was inspired by then-Republican presidential candidate John Kasich, who used silverware to attack a slice while dining in Queens. It became such a big deal that he had to go on TV and defend himself, saying on Good Morning America, “Look, look, the pizza came scalding hot, okay?”

Kasich shouldn’t feel too bad: He’s in good company. After becoming New York mayor, Bill de Blasio found himself in a silly, similar controversy when he was photographed eating pizza with a knife and fork. “In my ancestral homeland, it’s more typical to eat with a fork and knife,” explained de Blasio, who’s Italian on his mother’s side. (He also defended his cutlery choice by pointing out that the slice “had a lot on it.”)

And don’t forget, Trump is also a fork-and-knife guy: He got mocked for his eating habits back in 2011 while dining with Sarah Palin. When a video of him using silverware for his pizza went viral, he tried to explain it away by saying that he doesn’t like eating crust, which is the stupidest reason to justify eating like a civilized person.

In general, I like eating pizza with my hands. But like de Blasio said, if the pizza has a ton of toppings on it, using a fork makes sense. Otherwise, stuff flies everywhere and it’s a pain. Also, like Kasich said, if the pizza’s really hot, a fork is better. You’ll burn the hell out of your mouth otherwise. With all that said, I love that New Yorkers get so angry about this, as if it’s an act of cowardice. 

Well, way to go, you manly slobs. I’ll take your abuse while enjoying the fact that I didn’t get sauce and grease all over my shirt.

#2. Alcoholism is a problem for police officers but, oddly, divorce isn’t.

At one point, J.K. Simmons (who plays Andre’s captain) talks about the stress that cops face, mentioning the high rates of alcoholism and divorce. That all seemed pretty reasonable — it’s a difficult job, after all — but I decided to do some research and discovered something surprising. While alcoholism and addiction issues are real, cops actually get divorced at a lower rate than other professions.

First, let’s focus on alcoholism. According to Indra Cidambi, a psychiatrist who specializes in addiction, “One out of four police officers on the street has an alcohol or drug abuse issue, and substance use disorders among police officers are estimated to range between 20 percent and 30 percent as compared to under 10 percent in the general population.” The reasons are obvious: Cops experience people at their worst, with violence and death being unfortunate occupational hazards they have to witness on the job. “Almost one in four police officers have had thoughts of suicide at some point in their life,” Cidambi writes. “The suicide rate for police officers is four times higher than the rate for firefighters.”

Little surprise, then, that some in law enforcement are encouraging police officers to try mindfulness exercises as a way to handle stress. But, oddly enough, the divorce rates among cops aren’t as drastic in comparison to the general population. In two separate studies conducted earlier this decade, the data suggested that cops got divorced less than the national average — even though there remains a perception that the job results in more divorce because of the profession’s stressful nature, unconventional hours and long shifts. I looked around to see if I could find any studies that contradicted those findings and came up empty: When statistician Nathan Yau did his own research, he found that the divorce rate for “police officers” was 34.8 percent, while “detectives and criminal investigators” was 36.3 percent, which was nowhere close to the top 20 occupations in terms of highest divorce rates.

So why is this? These studies don’t provide any theories, so I wouldn’t want to speculate. In the meantime, the public will just generally believe what 21 Bridges espouses, which is that cops are more likely to be addicts and divorced. It’s a convenient assumption to use for a plot point in a movie, but the reality is far more complicated and intriguing.

#3. Yeah, a NYPD detective probably couldn’t get the city to shut off access to all 21 bridges.

As you may have guessed from the film’s name, Andre has law enforcement shut down the 21 bridges that connect the island of Manhattan to the rest of New York. The idea is that he doesn’t want these two thieves to escape — this way, they’re trapped in Manhattan. (He also cuts off access to the borough’s rivers and tunnels, but apparently the producers decided not to call the movie 21 Bridges, 3 Rivers and 4 Tunnels.)

In case you’re wondering, these are Manhattan’s 21 bridges:

  • George Washington Bridge
  • Spuyten Duyvil Rail Bridge
  • Henry Hudson Bridge
  • Broadway Bridge
  • University Heights Bridge
  • Washington Bridge
  • Alexander Hamilton Bridge
  • Highbridge
  • Macombs Dam Bridge
  • 145th Street Bridge
  • Madison Avenue Bridge
  • Park Avenue Bridge
  • Third Avenue Bridge
  • Willis Avenue Bridge
  • Triborough Bridge
  • Wards Island Pedestrian Bridge
  • Roosevelt Island Bridge
  • Queensboro Bridge
  • Williamsburg Bridge
  • Manhattan Bridge
  • Brooklyn Bridge

And here’s how they look on Google Maps:

My question: Has the NYPD ever actually closed down the entire island? Has any incident been so dire as to necessitate such a drastic course of action? Looking online, I see that certain bridges are closed on, say, Fourth of July, but even in those cases, they’re just closed to pedestrians and bicyclists. But outside of a tragedy on the scale of 9/11, no, this sort of thing doesn’t happen. 

Which underlines what’s sorta ridiculous about 21 Bridges. Sure, these two thieves killed cops, but it’s not exactly a citywide emergency. The movie makes such a big deal out of the fact that Andre gets his bosses to shut down Manhattan, but in reality, that’s a gross overreaction to a pretty straightforward crime. 

Turns out, this film is about the fact that Andre is kinda bad at his job.