Director: David Ayer
Writer: Max Landis
Stars: Will Smith, Joel Edgerton, Noomi Rapace
On paper there’s a version of “Bright” that has a lot of promise. Will Smith is back in action mode, it’s being directed by David Ayer (“End of Watch”) and it’s blending the fantasy and cop genres. The only problem is that despite Netflix greenlighting the $90 billion dollar actioner and staying out of the way, “Bright” is an incoherent mess that wastes a ton of talent both in front of and behind the camera. It’s a failure on a variety of levels in some of the same ways that Smith and Layer’s last collaboration “Suicide Squad” was. The first problem with “Bright” is that its world building and mythology never feel organic. The whole concept of a bright is explained and it’s assumed to be common knowledge but it never feels like anything more than a story thread the audience has to keep track of. The graffiti around Los Angeles is meant to give the audience a window into the racial/special hierarchy but the story never really does anything with it.
The premise of “Bright” is that humans, orcs, elves, and other mythical creatures were at war 2,000 years ago and now all coexist. Magic wands exist but only a “bright” can touch it. A non-bright would otherwise explode. “Will Smith is Daryl Ward an LAPD cop with a ton of debt and a sick daughter. He is stuck with the LAPD’s first orc cop in Joel Edgerton’s Nick Jakoby. Jakoby is reviled by his fellow officers both because the hatred between the two species and Jakoby’s alleged choice of species over cop in an incident where Ward gets shot. The only function any of the other officers have is to tell Ward he needs to get rid of Jakoby. Ward is pressured into setting up Jakoby during a call to a murder call where a wand is discovered along with the only remaining survivor is an elf named Tikka (Noomi Rapace). Things go sideways fast as Ward and Jakoby are being hunted by a Mexican gang, the LAPD, the orc gang, and a cult that wants to bring about a dark lord.
The movie seems to be about Ward accepting Jakoby as his partner but the film never establishes why specifically Ward hates orcs. There’s a line comparing the human/orc hatred to the way Latinos are still viewed negatively because of the Alamo but that doesn’t quite cut it. In fact, for a film that tries to use genre to make a point about race relations both inside and outside the police department. “Zootopia” manages this feat but “Bright” falls utterly short of that goal especially when it actually depicts minority characters. It also isn’t clear if Ward is supposed to hate only orcs or if he’s just completely prejudice against all mythical creatures. Ward is a similar character to Smith’s character in “I Robot” except at least in the latter film, the character’s hatred of robots is grounded in something. Ward also has that weird tic that dragged Smith’s Deadshot in “Suicide Squad” where the audience can’t completely hate Ward because he has a daughter. Jakoby on the other hand is handled better. He is well meaning, a tad dim, but is completely adrift in the world. He’s hated by the orcs and humans alike and the film has moments where it explores that but it gets lost in between action scenes.
The motivations of the dark cult aren’t clear. Sure, it’s established they’re trying to use a magic wand to bring back a dark lord but there’s no explanation as to why. It’s easy to say, because evil, but that’s just lazy. In “Hellboy II” Prince Nuada had a clear motivation to want to raise the Golden Army. He despised that humanity banished all magical creatures and their greed caused them to pave paradise and put up a parking lot. In “Bright” the whole dark lord plot gets lost in the shuffle and doesn’t come back until the end. The film loses a lot of threads actually and by the end it tries to reintroduce those threads but like one of Abe Simpson’s stories they don’t go anywhere.
Another baffling thing is that as capable an action director as David Ayer is, the action and effects look shoddy. Netflix made a big deal about the $90 million price tag but outside of the make-up and salaries it’s hard to see where that money went. Aside from showing the Los Angeles skylines the geography of the LA in “Bright” is as muddled as the mythology. Much like “Suicide Squad” it’s a pleasure to see Smith back in swagger mode but because the story around him is weak the swagger feels labored. Edgerton does a decent job of disappearing into his character and as the film goes on there is a fun buddy cop dynamic that almost develops between the two. Noomi Rapace is wasted here. Her character is merely a plot device and she ultimately gets nothing to do. There is a subplot involving two Magic task force agents, an elf and a human that goes nowhere except to signal another threat.
“Bright” was an opportunity for Netflix to signal that they are the place where action movies that aren’t a pre-existing IP or a remake of a classic can be made. Unfortunately, it feels like an example for studios to hold up as to why they don’t greenlight these kind of movies anymore. Netflix has already greenlit a sequel so by their voodoo metrics they consider “Bright” a success. The premise can be salvaged but it would require Netflix being more hands on.