Bright is a muddled mess of a film that fails to produce any fresh concepts or creative ideas by mashing together two distinctly different genres.
Bright is a fantasy meets cop drama/thriller written by Max Landis and directed by David Ayer (End of Watch, Suicide Squad). Since Landis broke out as a screenwriter with the 2012 found footage hit Chronicle, he has made a habit of blending genre elements in his screenplays; see, for example, his stoner romance meets Bourne-style assassin thriller American Ultra. Landis’ Bright script follows suit in that respect and was supposedly tailor made for Ayer – something that isn’t hard to believe, given how it allows the filmmaker to continue his ongoing exploration of Los Angeles gang culture and the line between cops and criminals. Unfortunately, much of the potential that this meeting of minds had ends up wasted here. Bright is a muddled mess of a film that fails to produce any fresh concepts or creative ideas by mashing together two distinctly different genres.
Will Smith stars in Bright as Darryl Ward, a seasoned LA cop who lives in an alternate version of the modern world where humans and mythical creatures – including, Orcs, Elves, and Fairies, among other races – have coexisted for thousands of years. With only five years left until he’s eligible for his pension, Ward finds himself partnered with rookie cop Nick Jacoby (Joel Edgerton) – who also happens to be the first Orc police officer ever. Although the majority of the (human) LA police force would prefer to see Jacoby kicked out purely for being a non-human, Ward does his best to cooperate with his Orc partner, even after Jacoby commits a rookie mistake that nearly gets Ward killed.
However, what starts out as a routine night patrol for Ward and Jacoby quickly goes south when the pair stumble upon the gruesome aftermath of a crime scene downtown. There, the two discover a magic wand – an ancient artifact that has fallen into legend and can only be wielded by individuals known as Brights (as anyone else who picks up a wand barehanded will explode) – along with a mysterious elf named Tikka (Lucy Fry). The three soon find themselves on the run and doing their best to protect the wand while staying alive, with everyone on their tail from dirty cops to power hungry human (as well as Orc) gangsters – and most dangerous of all, an elf named Leilah (Noomi Rapace), who wants to use the wand for her own sinister purposes.
In some ways, Bright plays out like a re-imagining of the sci-fi buddy cop film Alien Nation, only with Dungeons and Dragons fantasy races instead of extraterrestrials. Problem is, the mismatched police officer story at the heart of Bright is very thinly sketched and derivative to a fault, the fact that one of the cops is an Orc aside. The fantastical MacGuffin that drives the action forward isn’t all that interesting either, nor are any of the plot twists and turns that Landis’ script tosses into the mix all that surprising or compelling. Bright has some success with its world-building efforts in the beginning, but by the end its setting doesn’t feel all that cohesively realized and would still be a bit undeveloped by the standards of a TV pilot. As for the film’s attempts to tackle subjects like racism and police brutality through fantasy allegory – they’re conventional at best, but more often than not come off as misguided and more than a little dubious.
Smith and Edgerton do their best to elevate the material that they are presented with here, but for the most part their characters never come across as anything but two-dimensional archetypes. While Smith lends his trademark wise-cracking and dramatic presence to the film, Bright never evolves Ward beyond being the typical hard-edged police officer who’s been on the job for too long. Jacoby’s arc is likewise not all that compelling, nor is the film consistent in the way that it shows the character adjusting to the customs of everyday human life. At the end of the day, Ward and Jacoby aren’t memorable as a mismatched cop duo, beyond the fact that one of them is a creature out of a J.R.R. Tolkien-inspired fantasy story.
The supporting cast in Bright is (sadly) by and large wasted here too. Fry as Tikka has few to no distinguishable character traits (or dialogue) and the connection that she forms with Ward and Jacoby rings emotionally hollow for it. Rapace as the villainous Leilah is given an equally small amount to do here – and not much to say either – beyond making evil expressions and killing people in gruesome ways. Smith’s Suicide Squad costars Ike Barinholtz and Jay Hernandez play small supporting roles here too, as do actors like Édgar Ramírez (The Girl on the Train) and comedian/performer Margaret Cho, but their characters seem to exist to drive the plot forward and are given little to nothing to do beyond that.
To his credit, Ayer keeps Bright moving along at a steady pace and avoids dawdling too long on the film’s many illogical plot beats and half-baked ideas. Ayer and his trusted cinematographer Roman Vasyanov also manage to create some striking visuals, bringing the movie’s fantasy version of LA to life through heavy shadows and sharp nighttime colors. At the same time, there are several instances where the film’s world feels small rather than expansive and alive, as though it was filmed mostly at night as a cost-cutting measure. Bright‘s action sequences fail to leave a good impression either and tend to rely too heavily on murkily lit closeups that are confusingly and clumsily edited together. Clearly, the idea was for Bright to combine the look of a gritty cop movie with fantasy spectacle, but the movie struggles to seamlessly mix these aesthetics together.
In the end, Bright has more in common with one of Ayer’s directorial misfires (like Sabotage) than one of his best efforts, a la End of Watch and Fury. There’s certainly the potential to do something more interesting with the fantasy world that Landis and Ayer have established here, should Netflix decide to move forward with Bright 2, as reportedly planned. The problems with Bright come down to the poor execution and lack of followthrough, more than anything else. Here’s to hoping that Netflix’s next attempt to create an original movie that can go toe-to-toe with the average big-budget Hollywood offering turns out (much) better.
Bright is now available for streaming exclusively through Netflix. It is 117 minutes long and is Not Rated, but contains graphic violence, language, and brief graphic nudity.
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