D: David Ayer / 118m
Cast: Will Smith, Joel Edgerton, Noomi Rapace, Lucy Fry, Edgar Ramírez, Veronica Ngo, Alex Meraz, Happy Anderson, Ike Barinholtz, Dawn Olivieri, Matt Gerald, Margaret Cho, Joseph Piccuirro, Brad William Henke, Jay Hernandez, Enrique Murciano
And so, like the cinematic equivalent of a pair of socks (but for the same foot), we have Bright, the latest Netflix original to grace the small screen and remind us that not all the bad movies get a cinema release. Penned by Max Landis and directed by David Ayer, this lumpen mix of fantasy and crime arrives D.O.A. before it’s even started, and not once during its near-on two hour run time, shows any sign that it can be resurrected (unlike one of its characters). If you have to see this movie, then be warned: it’s as if Alien Nation (1988) never happened.
Mismatched buddy cop movies have been around for some time now, but rarely have they been as ill-advised and as poorly constructed as this movie. Bright takes a great central conceit – what if magic was real and fantasy creatures co-existed with us in some alternate reality? – and then keeps on reminding the viewer that beyond this central conceit, the script has no idea what to do with it other than to make an action thriller out of it, and one that rarely makes any coherent sense. There’s a Dark Lord who was vanquished two thousand years ago, and now a bad elf, Leilah (Rapace), wants to use one of three magic wands to bring the Dark Lord back so he can kill billions of people and enslave the rest. (As wth most fantasy movies where there’s a Big Bad who just wants to destroy everything, there’s no actual reason given as to why they want to do all this, or why they have followers who can’t see this isn’t actually a good thing.) Our heroes are a couple of L.A. cops, the mismatched buddies of this paragraph’s first sentence. One is Daryl Ward (Smith), a long-serving officer about to resume active duty after being shot, and the other is his partner, Nick Jakoby (Edgerton), the first and only Orc to become a police officer.
It won’t surprise anyone that Nick being an Orc gives rise to notions of racism, both casual and institutional, and the movie does spend some time examining this particular theme, but it does so in such a clumsy, ham-fisted way that it’s almost embarrassing. The Orc population primarily lives in ghetto-ised areas, while the Elves have their own exclusive part of town, are rich and influential, and apparently exist to go boutique shopping (there are fairies too but they’re not important). Both keep out of each other’s way, both have sketchily drawn histories, and there’s no attempt to explain how they and humans came to be co-existing with each other, or how long it’s been going on. Landis and Ayer aren’t interested in creating a credible world that makes any sense, and that’s evident by the way in which the movie throws the viewer in at the deep end and then wanders off without throwing them a lifeline. Instead, Ward and Nick are soon running from everyone in their efforts to keep Leilah’s magic wand – stolen by good elf Tikka (Fry) – from ending up in the wrong hands. Corrupt cops want it, a local gang wants it, Leilah and two of her followers (Ngo, Meraz) want it, and an FBI agent, Kandomere (Ramirez), wants it as well. What’s a couple of increasingly isolated police officers to do?
The answer is to wait until the movie delivers on a piece of information a minor character imparts near the beginning. The title refers to someone who can wield a magic wand – usually an elf – but who can also be human, even though the odds are (unsurprisingly) astronomical. With this fairly important tidbit introduced into the narrative, and in such a way as to draw direct attention to it, the ending of the movie is set up, and any tension intended to keep viewers on the edge of their seats wondering how Leilah can be defeated, is abandoned. Landis and Ayer know what’s going to happen, the viewer knows what’s going to happen, and if you took a straw poll of a hundred random strangers, they’d all know too. This means wading through a number of encounters that offer a succession of action beats – one inside a convenience store is at least well choreographed – interspersed with scenes that are meant to reveal more about the characters. Sadly, much of this is tedious to watch and dramatically redundant. This is fantasy by numbers, and Landis’s script doesn’t bring anything new to the table, just stock characters and a predictable scenario.
It’s concerning that Landis thinks of this movie as his “Star Wars“, and that Ayer has said (in response to a negative review) that “it’s a big fun movie”. Landis needs to rethink his opinion, and Ayer needs to reflect on what aspects could be regarded as “fun”. Following on so soon after the debacle that was Suicide Squad (2016), Ayer should be persuaded to avoid big budget fantasy spectacles and maybe concentrate on smaller, more personal movies or return to making gritty, immediate cop thrillers such as End of Watch (2012). Equally, Landis should forget about high concept screenplays and maybe write some more of the quirky, low budget stuff that actually has an impact, such as Mr. Right (2015). The trap that both men have fallen into is in believing that audiences will just accept what they’re being shown, and will be more than happy with the numerous action scenes that bulk out the movie. But when everything seems either laboured or ignored or both, audiences will take that on board, and they will be disappointed.
The performances are adequate, with Edgerton coming away with a degree of kudos for his portrayal of Nick, but for Smith this is another misfire in what seems to be a consistent series of misfires stretching all the way back to Men in Black 3 (2012). Whether you believe his judgment has been affected in some way, and that his choice of projects over the last five years has made him appear “off his game”, what remains is a portrayal here that doesn’t resonate in the way that a Will Smith performance used to. There isn’t the energy or the knowing humour that we’ve come to expect in the past; instead it’s another occasion where his presence is almost a guarantee of disappointment. Rapace has even less chance of making an impact, reduced as she is to playing generic villain of the month, while the rest of the cast make up the numbers in a variety of unassuming and unaffecting ways. It all looks gloomy and portentous, but not in a good way, and there are moments where any good intentions or creative ideas appear to have been jettisoned in favour of sticking to Landis’s screenplay. There’s a great movie to be made from the idea of fantasy creatures inhabiting the same world as humans, and living side by side with us, but unfortunately, Bright isn’t it.
Rating: 3/10 – with a sequel already greenlit and Smith set to return, the notion that Netflix have seen all they need to see in relation to Bright is quite a worrying development, especially as there’s nothing here to warrant continuing Ward or Nick’s story; loud, dumb, and superficially entertaining, it’s a movie that lacks heart and soul and a sense of wonder at the world it’s seeking to show, and which quickly descends into a melee of rote situations and trite outcomes.