Bright positions itself as a bold new riff on the partner-cop subgenre, a way of shaking up pre-existing formulas for an audience at which such movies rarely aim. In this case, David Ayer‘s latest meditation on men doing man things in a cruel, unforgiving man’s world offers an answer to the previously unasked question, “what if End of Watch was also a fantasy film?” The intra-squad partnership and banter of Ayer’s earlier (and still best) film is matched with a version of Los Angeles in which orcs, elves, fairies, and other mentioned-but-unseen beings tenuously coexist, and while the film’s initial premise is curious enough, Bright quickly nosedives into the worst possible version of itself: a hackneyed, stereotype-riddled police drama with a smattering of forgettable action setpieces.
Will Smith, in his fullest return to Bad Boys mode since 2003, stars as Officer Daryl Ward, a hard-charging cop returning to work after an ugly incident that saw him shot in the chest and very nearly killed by an orc with a shotgun. His younger, more idealistic partner Nick Jakoby (Joel Edgerton) was there to witness the shooting, and gave chase, but what happened next is a topic of major controversy around the force. Jakoby is an orc, but an “un-blooded” one, meaning that he never committed to any one clan, leaving him trapped between worlds. The police don’t trust him, given that the orcs in Ayer and screenwriter Max Landis’ world tend to largely exist in criminal spheres. And the orcs treat Jakoby with contempt, a lesser member of their centuries-old clan who sold out to the same police who victimize them.
Ward is hardly the straight-and-narrow type; jaded by his years of violent public service, he’s the type to declare that “I don’t fuck with fairies” before beating one of the mischievous beings to death in his front yard with a rake, intoning that “fairy lives don’t matter today.” He seemingly spends as much time attempting to get Jakoby removed from his squad car as he does solving crimes, until the surrealism of Jakoby’s world finds its way to Ward. When the two are called to investigate a brutal crime scene, they discover more than the gang shooting they arrived to handle. A magic wand, a force of absolute power in the film’s world, is left in the wake of the bodies, along with a quiet young elven woman named Tikka (Lucy Fry), who establishes that the wand belongs to a far more powerful being named Leilah (Noomi Rapace doing her best Ivanka Trump), who intends to resurrect an ancient Dark Lord to wreak havoc on the city, and then the world.
Although the wand’s power is deployed for a handful of grisly action sequences, most of Bright unfolds with the cadence of a tepid police procedural, as Ward and Jakoby find themselves beset on all sides by parties anxious to bring the wand’s unchecked power into their own hands. (Not literally, you see; touching a wand with one’s bare hands is a death sentence, unless of course you happen to be one of the titular chosen beings.) From Latino gangs to orc clans to the elven aristocracy, everybody wants what Jakoby has in his sidearm bag, and are willing to go to virtually any lengths to obtain it. Even a pair of federal agents from the “Magic Task Force,” including the sharp-witted elf Kandomere (Edgar Ramirez), are hot on the trail. The unlikely and reluctant duo are left to shoot, bicker, and threaten their way through L.A. over the course of one long night, hoping to spirit Tikka away to safety and save themselves along the way.
Much of Bright is dedicated to the terse alliance between Ward and Jakoby, and the film does a disservice to both actors in having them play such stock types. Smith in particular appears to be relying on a familiar mode, and while it’s mildly heartening at points to see him reach back into the vulgar fire that informed some of his early starmaking performances, there’s little for him to do but crack one-liners and express escalating concern. Edgerton, under an impressive hillock of orc makeup, likewise brings an engaging energy to the role of the embattled sidekick. While calling the film’s approach to multiculturalism tone-deaf would be putting it as lightly as possible, Edgerton manages to find occasional glimmers of resonance in the idea of a fantasy being with no one true home, even if the film surrounding him hardly justifies the gravitas he attempts to bring to it.
Bright is frequently ugly in more than one sense, but the most notable is the film’s muddy visual palette, which sees Ayer make the highly suspect decision to re-appropriate the hideous aesthetics of Suicide Squad, with a splash or two of garish Refn-esque neons for style. From the noncommittal instances of speed-ramping to the heightened gore throughout, there’s little about the film that feels stylistically distinctive, and given Ayer’s relentless obsession with hyper-stylizing as many frames as he possibly can, this is a trait that becomes tiresome well before the film exhausts itself at the near-two-hour mark. But the ugliness is every bit as much thematic as it is visual; it’s hard enough to take bon mots like
“I need to know if you’re a cop first, or an orc first” seriously even before Ayer begins to traffic in some of the more craven stereotypes of any 2017 release. Orcs are established lifting cars outside and drinking 40s, Ward’s next-door neighbors lecherously comment on his hot wife as he tells them to “Crip walk your asses back to the barbecue,” and the police’s leering contempt would feel a lot more reproachable in a better or more engaging movie.
As it stands, these are all just a few more reasons to dislike Ayer’s frequently unlikable film, to say nothing of the point around halfway in at which Bright abandons most of its world-building and lackluster police discrimination allusions in favor of a dulling action-fantasy hybrid that opens up a lot of mythology to no intriguing ends. It’s the kind of film that sets up a compelling sandbox in which to play, and then smashes gracelessly through it, cackling all the while.