Director: David Ayer
Writer: Max Landis
Producer: Eric Newman, David Ayer, Bryan Unkeless, Ted Sarandos
Stars: Will Smith, Joel Edgerton, Noomi Rapace, Lucy Fry, Edgar Ramirez, Ike Barinholtz, Brad Henke, Enrique Murciano, Alex Meraz, Veronica Ngo, Margaret Cho, Jay Hernandez
In a Los Angeles where humans coexist with mythical races, a police officer and his orc partner must stop magic-wielding elves, gangsters, and rogue cops from acquiring a powerful wand.
“Bright” takes place in a contemporary Los Angeles where humans coexist with orcs and elves, fairies fill in for pest control nuisances, and a dragon can be seen flapping giant wings against the night sky. Sounds like imaginative ingredients for a promising premise. Would that it were, because the depth of “Bright’s” minimal mythology ends at introducing ideas it does nothing novel with. Instead of a rich blend of high fantasy and urban action, “Bright” uses its cursory backdrop to build a spectacularly stale setup from chained-together clichés.
Despite all of the above, this reality otherwise turned out identical to our own. Apparently not even a vaguely referenced Grand War that took place 2,000 years ago could influence the outcome of the LAPD’s Rampart scandal. Yes, for all of its bluster about magic wands, a Dark Lord rising from the dead, and class divides constructed from the Dungeons & Dragons Fiend Folio, the world of “Bright” reads as unimpressively ordinary.
That’s probably part of the point. Director David Ayer and writer Max Landis want parallels to be obvious. Yet the substitution of creatures for other ethnicities is treated as so casually immaterial, “Bright” becomes an insensitively trite take in a time when racial tension remains a white-hot topic. This isn’t escapist entertainment. It’s a misguided mirror of social commentary wearing a smirk of flippancy.
Our initial guide is human LAPD officer Daryl Ward. Ward doesn’t do much to dissuade all of the demeaning whispers in his ear about his partner Nick Jakoby, whose major crime is being the first and only orc on the police force. Ward even gives Nick an unending amount of grief for him getting shot while Nick bought them burritos on a lunch run. Never mind that Ward was texting while a gunman strode straight toward him. Nick wasn’t watching Ward’s distracted back, so he fields the blame.
We’re asked to see things from Ward’s side though, because Will Smith plays him. See, when it comes from Smith’s mouth, proclaiming “fairy lives don’t matter” before beating one to death “LAPD style,” as his neighbor puts it, is supposedly funny. Except it isn’t. Since Ward has such a mean streak to his sarcasm, Smith can’t conjure his usual appeal. Ward thusly flounders as a frustratingly passive enabler of the hatred boiling everywhere around him. And when he isn’t failing to stick up for Nick the way he unfairly expects Nick to stick up for him, Ward whines about having to do his duties, looking for easy ways out of protective responsibilities regarding a wand as well as a young elf girl’s safety.
In simpler terms, Ward is a charmless person whose callousness nullifies the usually charming Smith from doing anything engaging with the role. It certainly doesn’t help that the banter between Ward and Nick is blandly banal. Several of their room temperature quips even appear awkwardly improvised.
Ostracized as a race traitor and similarly scowled at by human cops for being an orc, Nick Jakoby is just a poor boy from a poor family. He’s a trope too, like literally everything else in “Bright.” However, Joel Edgerton, continuing his streak of being the best thing about practically every movie he appears in, almost singlehandedly stops the bleeding of the cast’s collective charisma. Landis’ script doesn’t afford Edgerton opportunities to do anything new with the archetype. He still has to pout dejectedly in cutaways when he overhears badmouthing peers and angrily explodes when the spite he constantly swallows finally cracks his cool. But Edgerton emotes through heavy makeup to run away with tiara and sash for most emotionally effective actor on the roster.
What’s weird, the movie’s monsters are nowhere near as silly as the humans, who come off as the most cartoonish characters. (Excepting ridiculous visuals like gangbanging orcs in gold chains and NFL jerseys, of course.) Racial themes have no hope of landing when comedian Ike Barinholz, sporting a goofy middle school science teacher mustache to boot, spouts off bigoted nonsense about lynching orcs as though neck-deep in another Mad TV sketch. “Bright” drifts into an indeterminate tone of seemingly wanting to be taken seriously, or maybe it merely misses a laugh track to accentuate its absurdity.
In the way that “Pulp Fiction” pits everyone for possession of a mysterious briefcase, “Bright” is a MacGuffin movie where everyone from corrupt cops to magic-wielding elves to gangbangers of two different species are in hot pursuit of an all-powerful magic wand. Ward and Jakoby have it, as well as a rogue elf capable of using it, and the conflict over who will control it next creates 1992 riot-scale havoc all across L.A.
Instead of scenes, “Bright” strings together setpieces. It isn’t a story so much as a series of repetitious shootouts. In a movie unnecessarily running two full hours, what’s the point of recycling confrontations with gangsters other than to stage them in different locations like a graffiti-filled punk club, dusty warehouse, gas station, inner city home, casino, or strip club, all of which we’ve seen countless times before? “Bright” goes out of its way to show us how nothing about its world is different from ours. Why bother including orcs, elves, fairies, or magic at all if none of it aims to be intriguing?
“Bright” also struggles to connect its fiction together. A big deal is made about Daryl’s mystery shooter, who turns out to be an innocent bystander Nick let walk to prevent a mistaken identity mobbing. This orc comes back to play a predictable part by being tasked to murder the cops, yet he refuses as an act of honoring his debt. His sacrifice immediately becomes irrelevant moments later when another orc murders Nick anyway. It’s as if the script doesn’t know how to make its beats meaningful, much less use them to propel the plot forward.
“Bright” bizarrely fascinates by virtue of flopping mightily to make a big budget blockbuster out of a molehill of mediocrity. It isn’t without value as an entertainment oddity, though its contentedness to be redundant as mildly energetic action fails the potential of its fiction. Here and there scraps can hopefully be salvaged for a sequel. For now, “Bright” exemplifies average ambition wearing a $90 million dress stitched from hollow spectacle and a largely disinterested cast.
Review Score: 50