Though I ought to know better by now, every time I see a trailer for a new movie or TV show that features Taylor Kitsch and looks halfway decent, I ask myself: is this what will finally make the Friday Night Lights actor a star?
The answer, of course, is no. If the charismatic Canadian (and Austin resident), known best as Timothy “33” Riggins, was meant to be a movie star, it would have happened already. There was potential in 2009, when he played Gambit in X-Men: Wolverine, the first big studio movie he booked during a summer hiatus for Friday Night Lights. But the idea died at the end of 2012, an annus horribilis that saw Kitsch starring in John Carter, Battleship, and Savages, three consecutive (and expensive) box office and critical flops.
And it’s a shame. I’ve been rooting for Taylor Kitsch since the first time I saw him push his pretty hair back from his pretty face and mumble the dreamiest phrase imaginable. And so I have hoped and waited through A Normal Heart, True Detective season 2, Lone Survivor, Waco, American Assassin, and a few others for some proof that his muted-yet-effectual star power could translate to stories outside of Dillon, Texas.
And for a second there, y’all, I thought maybe 21 Bridges could do it. On paper, the film had a lot going for it, most notably the attachment of Avengers: Infinity War and Endgame directors Anthony and Joseph Russo as producers. It was the first movie Chadwick Boseman signed on for following the success of Black Panther. And the plot itself, about an NYPD detective named Andre Davis (played by Boseman) who must track down cop-killers Ray Jackson and Michael Trujillo (Kitsch and If Beale Street Could Talk’s Stephan James) before they escape the island of Manhattan on anyone of its—you guessed it!—21 bridges, sounds like a helluva ride.
But there were early warning signs; specifically, the addition of Sienna Miller as a definitely-not-British narcotics officer helping Boseman find the perps. When I first became aware of the project last fall, through a series of on-set Instagram posts by Kitsch featuring such hashtags as #nightshoooot, #brooklynbridge, and #onyou, it was originally called a modest 17 Bridges. Imagine my surprise to see the 21 Bridges trailer, with the last-minute addition of four whole bridges implying a worrisome lack of attention to detail from the get-go. Reshoots, multiple premiere-date postponements, and no advanced press screenings followed, which indicated that something had perhaps fallen apart in post-production and the studio was just going to release the movie and hope for the best.
I saw it last night, finagling a seat to the only advance screening I could find in the Austin area (24 hours before the film’s opening night). The movie isn’t horrible, per se, so long as you don’t think too hard about the areas in which it falls (very) short. There were some memorable action scenes (most notably an extended foot-chase between Boseman and James). Aside from the Boston accent he used for his New York City-native evil character, Kitsch did a serviceable job. He seems both comfortable and entertained playing villains, a pivot he made a few years ago with American Assassin and saw through with the Waco miniseries (a continuation, perhaps, of the “bad boy” that Riggins was). But it’s not a star turn; he’s kind of a minor character, not even the main bad guy Michael (played by Stephan James, who is both compelling and does not deserve what this movie has done to him). What’s more, the cheesy film’s cheesiest moments come via Kitsch’s character, including a scene in which Kitsch, clearly stressed about all the murder he’s been committing, brandishes a two-year sobriety chip out of nowhere before snarling: “I need a scotch.”
It was, I assume, an effort by the filmmakers to imbue their aspirant thriller with some emotional depth, urging the audience to see Kitsch’s lifelong struggle (and failure) to be a better man, despite the traumas he experienced growing up in a crappy neighborhood and then serving in Afghanistan. As evidenced by the fact that I still think Taylor Kitsch can be a movie star, I’m more-than-inclined to sympathize with the characters he plays, but even I was put off by the idea of rooting for someone who murdered seven police officers, without hesitation or discretion, at the start of the film.
The villainous Kitsch is not the only character the film wants us to feel for. Miller’s tough-as-nails New Yorker narcotics officer (who did the casting for this movie?!?!) is a struggling single mother. Boseman plays a trigger-happy detective whose father, also a cop, was killed in the line of duty when he was a young man. James plays a man who lost his way when he lost his older brother, but we are constantly reminded that he is not, in his heart, a killer. (“He’s not like us,” a bloody Kitsch repeats to Boseman before croaking melodramatically.)
Everyone who starred in 21 Bridges clearly did their best to make a movie that would entertain and resonate with audiences, even though it falls flat. And the actors in this film are all extremely watchable; I wish them long and fruitful acting careers. Especially Kitsch, of course. But hey, maybe it’ll be his next project that will finally make him a movie star.