David Ayer is a man of talent when capturing a pulsating buddy cop movie on the mean streets of LA that rises above its premise. Alas for those willing to see a continuation of his work on End of Watch, Netflix original Bright is not the place to go.
In an alternate universe, fantasy creatures walk the earth side by side with humans. Least respected are the orcs, who even in modern-day Los Angeles are still despised by humans for their decision to align with The Dark Lord two millennia earlier. As the first ever orc cop, Nick Jakoby (Joel Edgerton) must face intense prejudice and the wavering loyalties of his human partner Daryl Ward (Will Smith). On a call-out Ward and Jakoby come across an elf, a magic wand, and gangsters, other elves, and police who want to destroy them both.
If this sounds messy and overstuffed that’s because it is. There is an early scene where a periphery character is unspooling a boatload of information to FBI agents purely for exposition. It’s too much for an audience to take in, and Ayer seems to try and resolve this issue by repeating jargon over and over again, less and less interesting each time. It’s crammed into almost every scene, to the point that a supposedly inspirational speech towards the end is comprised almost entirely of a lore no-one can pay much mind to.
Noomi Rapace as elf Leilah suffers from the same paper-thin characterisation as virtually all recent antagonists in the fantasy blockbuster genre. She’s bad for the sake of it, and like Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) in Doctor Strange, the fact her character is uninvolving has nothing to do with an undisputed talent as an actor. There is also elf girl Tikka (Lucy Fry) our leads must protect, markedly similar to Laura (Dafne Keen) in Logan.
Bright never comes close to capturing the cop friendship portrayed by Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Peña in End of Watch, and continues Will Smith’s downward career trajectory of which Ayer’s Suicide Squad was a part. Smith is an actor as only as good as his material, and this is stodgy throughout.
Jakoby reminds me of Drax’s (Dave Bautista) comic appeal in Guardians of the Galaxy, a deadpan misunderstanding of human interaction. Yet every single one of his exchanges with Ward feels forced, and instead of sparking up the movie usually only serve to weigh it down further. As with the orcs of Duncan Jones’ Warcraft, with all the effects masking the face the script and the performances fail to capture any humanity underneath.
The novelty of seeing fantastical creatures casually existing in LA quickly fades. Bright just feels exhausting and dull in long stretches, while greatly derivative of a Tolkien or Rowling universe.
As a racial allegory, Bright is similarly strained. There are weird in-jokes such as ‘fairy lives matter’ and Jakoby derided as a ‘diversity hire’. They don’t really land, and it’s hard to see what Ayer is trying to say with this subtext beyond racism is bad.
The action can look pretty decent at times, though it’s choppily edited and for all the bodies hitting the floor there’s never any real sense of danger for the leads. This weird lack of tension is compounded by plot holes you could drive a police SUV through, and plot points left dangling (Ward has a sheriff friend who after much talk of only exists to be dispatched).
Well done Netflix, with Bright you’ve entered the world of the Hollywood blockbuster. For all the innovation of the idea it’s in the way of a DC-lite mess that won’t linger in the memory.
NB: For a Christmas release this film is not family friendly. Though if you like orcs and strip clubs in the same film Bright will hold a least a little magic for you.