Sometimes a premise is so unavoidably eye-catching that the resultant movie all but sells itself. Netflix’s Bright is a prime example, pitching an darkly comic alternate reality where fairytale creatures live uncomfortably alongside humans in modern-day Los Angeles. It’s basically Lord of the Rings meets Training Day, only with the sight of Will Smith bludgeoning a fairy with a broomstick thrown in for good measure. Sadly, the end result fails to live up to the expectation, resulting in a clumsy and confusing cop-comedy-fantasy-thriller-social-drama unable to blend its mish-mashed parts into an entertaining whole.
All credit to director David Ayer (Suicide Squad) and screenwriter Max Landis (Chronicle) for crafting such a vivid, richly imaginative world. Two thousand years after humans banded with mythical creatures to defeat the Dark Lord, the victors have neatly divided into social factions. Elves are the elites, gliding through their glitzy gated community in sleek sports cars. Orcs are the thuggish underclass, dismissed and discriminated against by everyone for picking the losing side during the war. And humans, it seems, are somewhere in the middle, grinding out a living by doing the jobs no-one else wants to do.
While there’s a lot of clever ideas at play here – the notoriously mischievous fairies are depicted as pesky insects who need to be exterminated – it often feels like we’ve only scratched the surface of what this word has to offer. Key concepts such as a secret prophecy and the existence of brights, magic users who are closely regulated by federal forces, are introduced and then left frustratingly underdeveloped.
The story is similarly underfed. Following the fine buddy cop movie tradition of chalk-and-cheese police pairings, Smith’s grouchy Daryl Ward is forced to partner with Nick Jakoby (Joel Edgerton), the force’s first orc officer. But when a routine call lands the pair in possession of a magical wand, the movie shifts into an plodding chase movie as Ward and Jakoby race aimlessly across a gloomy Los Angeles pursued by corrupt cops, federal agents, an orc blood cult and Noomi Repace’s evil ninja elves. Quite why Lucy Fry’s waifish-looking elf also tags along for the ride is also never made clear.
Such a busy plot, coupled with Ayer’s typically frenetic pacing, leaves little time for the characters to flourish. Edgerton does well to imbue his orc with kindness, humility and pride from beneath a mound of prosethetics, yet the pain of being shunned by his own kind and the tumult of having to choose between his people and his badge never quite ring true. Smith, meanwhile, is merely required to shoot stuff and crack wise like a creaking Mike Lowrey, with little attention paid to his family struggles or his past troubles with the orc community.
That also means that Bright’s admirable attempts at social commentary also fall flat. The notion of using mythical creatures to shine a light on our own social divisions is an effective, if not wholly original device, but it seems that Landis’ has nothing new to say on the subject, save for the fact that some people are unfortunate to be born without privilege. It’s almost as if a wealthy white man might not be best placed to explore the nuances of racial tensions.
The strongest moments, as they so often do with buddy cop movies, come when Smith and Edgerton are exchanging banter in their cop car. Like when Jakoby correctly surmises that Ward isn’t getting enough sex, just by examining the look on his face. It’s a smart, funny, entirely honest scene that reveals much more about their personalities and relationships than any cartridge-showering shootout ever could.
Perhaps the movie would’ve been better served spending more time with these two misfit cops, rolling around this vibrantly magical world trading swipes about the sorry state of their Iives. Now there’s a bright idea…
Runtime: 117 mins (approx.)
Director: David Ayer
Screenwriter: Max Landis
Stars: Will Smith, Joel Edgerton, Noomi Repace, Lucy Fry