Part of the tragedy of Chadwick Boseman’s early death is that it has touched so much of the rest of his career with sadness. When he died in 2020 at the age of 43 after a difficult and secret battle with colon cancer, it was most felt to the public at large for the repercussions to his most famous role as T’Challa aka Black Panther in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. But that character (great as his performance was) was only a small aspect of his career. At the time of his passing, he had been acting in films for 12 years. He had been working in television long before then, and began his career as an acclaimed playwright in New York City. So when we think of Chadwick Boseman, it is not just for the loss of one of his most inspiring (and inspired) characters, but for all that could have been. But we should be grateful for all the roles he had before then, and not just sad about the ones he could have had. Some people must already know this, because one of his pre-Black Panther hits is currently blowing up Netflix USA.
Chadwick Boseman starred in 21 Bridges just after the one-two hit of Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame. To be one of the stars of two of the biggest movies in history must have been a strange feeling, but what is interesting is that he would turn to a relatively small thriller after that. During the filming of the paired Avengers movies, Boseman was approached by the directing Russo Brothers, who were also working to produce 21 Bridges. Despite being set in New York City, all of the characters in the movie were envisioned as white and male (a sadly common trope in Hollywood films). After being cast, Boseman pushed to diversify the cast and to encourage changes like bringing in Sienna Miller and Stephan James to supporting roles.
In many ways, 21 Bridges is a kind of throwback thriller to movies like Speed and The Taking of Pelham One Two Three. It is a crime drama led by a heroic cop (Chadwick Boseman, naturally), with a premise that is at once both incredibly simple and strangely convoluted. In Speed, Keanu Reeves has to take down a terrorist played by Dennis Hopper; only problem, there is a speeding bus that could blow up at any second. In The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, a group of masked criminals take a group of innocent people hostage and demand ransom; only problem, they are on a moving subway car. And in 21 Bridges, Boseman’s Andre Davis is hunting down two cop-killer criminals in Manattan; only problem, he needs to shut down all access to the New York island in order to make sure they do not escape. Hence, the titular 21 bridges.
Amusingly, the film was originally titled 17 Bridges. According to an interview Chadwick Boseman gave Ellen DeGeneres, the production legitimately did not think to check how many bridges lead in and out of Manhattan until deep into production. Fortunately for everyone involved, someone did a quick headcount of bridges, and the movie was retitled. And to be fair, it would not actually have changed the plot of the movie. Boseman hunts down Stephan James and Taylor Kitsch, two war veterans turned criminal, who tried to make a small-time score and ended up with 300 kilos of cocaine and a pile of dead police officers. In another film, it could have been a story about these two misfits trying to get out of a bad situation that only gets worse, but 21 Bridges quickly turns into a film of complex police corruption and doublecrosses. Suffice it to say, if JK Simmons is in a movie, he’s either the best person around or the absolute scum of the earth.
21 Bridges was a moderate success at the box office, clearing its budget by a clean 16 million. It did not fare as well with critics, who generally considered it to not have made the most of a cast that included Chadwick Boseman, Taylor Kitsch, JK Simmons and Keith David. Even now, it has a strangely ratioed Rotten Tomatoes score of a mediocre 54% Critic to an outstanding 91% Audience. That probably speaks to its currently #5 most streamed status on Netflix, as much as Boseman’s magnetic presence and legend does. He made two more movies before his death, and his presence is still being felt in the monumental MCU series. Rest in Peace, Boseman.