Is Bright shite? The lion’s share of the critics would have you believe so, including a quick-on-the-trigger Variety, which gave it one of the few good reviews but then pronounced it DOA in order to announce their intention for Will Smith to run for the Oval Office (I’m sure he’ll take it under advisement). I don’t really see how the movie can’t end up as a “success”; most people who have Netflix will at least be curious about an all-new $90m movie with a (waning, but only because he’s keeps making bad choices) major box office star.
As to whether it’s any good, Bright’s about on a level with most of director David Ayer’s movies, in that it’s fast, flashy and fitfully entertaining, but also very muddled, mixed-up and, no matter how much cash is thrown at it, still resembles the kind of thing that usually ends up straight to video (making Netflix his ideal home).
Part of that is probably Ayer having little discernible grasp of cinematic style or scale, even when he’s supposedly dealing with epic events (his last two movies). He’s all about the “verité”, intimate character moments, keeping it real, putting his actors through the mill in order to garner “genuine” responses and emotions. All the kind of method nonsense that really counts for something when dealing with the environs of anti-superheroes or magical kingdoms dubiously transposed to an inner-city locale.
Daryl Ward: I need to know if you’re a cop first, or an orc first. I need you to say it.
As other reviews have pointed out, it’s immediately problematic that Ayer and hack screenwriter Max Landis opted to posit angry, violent, belligerent orcs as stand-ins for ethnic minority gangs (not that there aren’t still ethnic minority gangs in the picture); as concessions go, their listening to death metal (orcish music) rather than rap is a thin one, and Nick Jackoby (Joe Edgerton) even has to comment at one point that orcs see him as a wannabe human while humans see him as an animal.
Having an African-American lead showing ignorance towards and intolerance of orc kind was no doubt considered cute, but the reversal seems merely clumsy and doesn’t help with the metaphor, particularly when the whiter-than-white elves (even with Edgar Ramirez as an FBI elf) with their “closed community” area of the city, are shown as the one percent. This isn’t exactly subtle.
There are also fundamental problems with world building. Maybe it’s the Alien Nation factor, but I could never get it out of my head that this sharing of realms must somehow have been a relatively recent thing, rather than “coexisting since the beginning of time”. Jackoby being the first orc cop runs with the segregation theme in a very Alien Nation way, while the knowledge of other creatures and supernatural goings-on has the flavour of “we’re hearing about this for the first time”.
Everyone wants a wand, because it has the potential of offering life-changing powers, provided it doesn’t kill you on touch. But if you have a wand, what’s to stop you from simply wielding it take ultimate control (or wielding power for untold good, even)? How many elves have wands, and what do they do with them (being regulated by law and having your wand officially confiscated isn’t really going to have much impact, if you simply decide to wave it to avoid being detected)?
I guess you could carry this over into the one-percent analogy, the maintaining of power through magical means, but Ayer and Landis take the premise so literally, channelling it into a functional conspiracy procedural with (unimpressive, design-wise) prosthetic dressings, they’re clearly hoping we’ll just accept the surface detail and respond to the fireworks, no questions asked.
I don’t think anyone familiar with Landis’ mashup output – unless it’s his first produced screenplay, the admittedly very decent Chronicle – was expecting much from this, but Bright is still more serviceable than the likes of American Ultra and Victor Frankenstein. It has certain factors immediately in its favour. Smith, as veteran cop Daryl Ward, is doing a part he’s done before in his sleep – and has clearly been trying to break away from, unfortunately hampered by his inability to recognise a good script when he sees it – age not discernibly wearying him, but it’s an agreeable part, and he’s still a very agreeable screen presence.
I’d swear Edgerton outright studied Mandy Patinkin in Alien Nation, as many of his choices and traits feel like a direct lift (the straight-laced cop, the culture shock comedy of opposites, the deadpan “not getting it” delivery). Edgerton deserves kudos, as like Patinkin before him, he immerses in the part to the extent that you can’t see the actor within.
He and Smith have an easy rapport (although I’d wager everyone has an easy rapport with Smith – even Tommy Lee Jones does), even as they go through the motions of every getting-to-know-you macho clichés (you know, trying to be good people, not being brave but doing what you need to do anyway, that kind of shit). Their best interaction doesn’t come until the end, though, as Ramirez interviews the duo, Jackoby spilling every bean and then some while Ward waits patiently to give the official account.
One shouldn’t inflate Alien Nation by the inevitable comparisons, of course. It’s in no way a great movie, even if it had a decent premise (decent enough to spawn a short-lived TV series and a string of TV movies). What it undoubtedly had going for it, though, was that it was much easier to pin down in terms of canvas and concept. Bright has too much potentially going on, creates too many questions, certainly far too many for one of Landis’ negligible high-concept brainstorming (next up, desecrating dad’s An American Werewolf in London, because it has aged so badly, right?) Landis, who previously poured his Wikipedia research on secret government projects into American Ultra, now shows similar perspicacity with “just some Illuminati shit”.
That shit being: a plan to resurrect the Dark Lord so he can slaughter billions and enslave the survivors to serve him (why not just enslave everyone? Lack of vision there, that or he’s been studying the Georgia Guidestones). There’s little else to glean in this regard (I’m guessing the Dark Lord himself is saved for the sequel), except that “2000 years ago, magic stopped him, and it will stop him again” and the process, naturally as it’s the elite, involves ritual blood sacrifices. This is an alt-world without a Christ figure, but Landis evidently feels the need to include a similarly epoch defining event, albeit rather than the arrival of a saviour, it’s the defeat of an enslaver.
Instead of the Dark Lord, we encounter his lieutenant in Noomi Rapace’s Leilah, one of the Inferni, pursuing Lucy Fry’s elf-in-distress Tikka. Rapace is essentially a Terminator elf, with about as much character shading as that description implies. That said, I’m not sure it matters; while she doesn’t have much to say, her entire career has probably been a build-up to eventually playing an elf.
With regard to the half-spun mythology, Ward is, in due course, revealed as a chosen one – a Bright, or wand wielder – which is kind of inevitable, as Smith doesn’t get any truly great heroic moves in before he goes all magical on Leilah’s ass. But there’s a disconnect to making him super powered. When Keanu goes the full Neo (a role Smith turned down), there’s the thrill of the nobody made special. But Will Smith is already Will Smith; you can’t really boost the guy any higher, as no matter how many special skillz he inherits, his charisma factory will always lead the way (it’s why – controversial, I know – Hancock worked, as Smith’s down-at-heel burnout contrasted effectively with daring feats).
Ayers is at his best – unsurprisingly, given End of Watch is easily his best movie to date – with the rigours and routines and closed ranks of the police force. In particular, the shunning of Jakoby by his fellow officers and Ward’s reluctance to either actively support or denounce him.
There are some well-staged and edited sequences, such as Ward deciding he isn’t going to bow to pressure from his peers (“old school ‘Rampart’ shit”) and comes out shooting, but little sticks in the mind overall, any more than with the nocturnal mayhem of Suicide Squad. If his movies keep making money, he’ll no doubt keep making big-budget ones, but I don’t think it’s his forte (even ones with big stars that aren’t – like Arnie in Sabotage and Keanu in Street Kings – don’t really play to his strengths). If he wants to tell macho, gritty stories, he should tell down-and-dirty, macho, gritty stories, rather than attempting to foist his sensibility on any old studio material that comes his way.
The first scene in Bright finds Ward’s wife asking him to “Go kill that fairy, please”, her protesting husband eventually heading to the birdfeeder and bashing the offending sprite to death with a broom (“Fairy lives don’t matter today”). It’s played for laughs as representing how casually these unfamiliar elements are assimilated into this world, but the problem is that it’s so clearly a back-engineered gag that pays no attention to coherence (are fairies sentient in this world? If so, Ward casually committed murder to general approval. If they aren’t, are they basically animals – its treatment is basically that of a mosquito, as you don’t generally go out and beat garden birds to death – so do people eat fairies? And what do fairies do, apart from consuming bird seed?)
Occasionally, there’s a line suggesting something more (“My ancestors killed them by the fucking thousands in Russia” boasts one office of his family’s aptitude for massacring orcs), and at one point, we see a centaur cop on patrol, apropos nothing. But these elements just tend to add to the sense that Landis’ world makes little sense conceptually; it’s a facile overlay onto contemporary society (what is the elvish equivalent of science – magic? And if so, how would that affect their – and everyone else’s – everyday world?).
At least, if you have any serious designs on exploring it, which Ayer and Landis evidently don’t. One might hope for more care and attention in the sequel(s), but I suspect, given the creative titans involved, it will be equally slapdash. Netflix has made its first blockbuster in Bright, and done it well enough, to the extent that it’s quickly processed junk food. It will have dimmed in your mind after 24 hours.