REVIEW: 'Bright' is a slipshod fantasy thriller trying to play politics

Will Smith and Joel Edgerton star in  Bright , directed by David Ayer.

Will Smith and Joel Edgerton star in Bright, directed by David Ayer.

One of the things that made me take notice of Max Landis (other than his breakout found-footage superhero film Chronicle) was a short film he wrote, directed and starred in called The Death and Return of Superman. In the short, Landis exposes the many objectionable creative decisions made by DC Comics in their infamous 90s story arc. One of Landis’s key arguments is that you should never “kill death” – in other words, make a big deal about killing off a character, only to resurrect him for the selfish reason of continuing a series. It’s a play that neutralizes any narrative stakes, making it incredibly hard for a reader or a viewer to care what happens next.

How disappointing, then, to see Landis so casually rip up his rulebook to make a quick buck in league with Netflix, the hottest brand in entertainment. The result is Bright: a loud, incomprehensible and utterly tone-deaf action thriller with an admirably bonkers – though ludicrously heavy-handed - concept. It imagines a world where orcs, elves, fairies and other magical creatures co-exist with humans in a modern, 21st century setting. There are plenty of tensions between these beings: humans seem to be the dominant life form, while Tolkinian elves are the wealthy one per cent, and orcs are the lowest class and act as a stand-in for African-Americans.

Naturally this is meant as a political commentary of sorts, but one without a shred of nuance. Bright has almost no insight into what we can learn about race relations by framing them in a fantasy context. Instead, the movie exists to literally re-skin old tropes and then get distracted with a tiresome save-the-world-from-eternal-darkness plot.

To its limited credit, the movie does fire itself up rather quickly. It doesn’t bog us down in flashbacks, narration or onscreen text to sketch out the background of the magical creatures. But there’s a difference between starting in media res and leaving the audience completely confused. It seems to take forever before we finally get a complete picture of the world: there was a big battle in Russia 2,000 years ago where an evil sorcerer threatened the planet, and the orcs sided with him. The other races banded together and used magic to seal the being away. Now, a modern society has evolved, but orcs are still distrusted for their misplaced allegiance centuries before.

Noomi Rapace as an evil elf named Leilah.

Noomi Rapace as an evil elf named Leilah.

Our human proxy is a Los Angeles Police Department officer, Daryl Ward (Will Smith) who has been paired with a new partner, the first orc officer on the force. Nick Jakoby (Joel Edgerton) is eager to please Ward, and prove that his people can be trusted. In spite of his colleagues all conspiring to get Jakoby kicked off the force (or even make the orc’s death look like an accident), Ward begrudgingly stands by him. Then, on a call one night, Ward and Jakoby come across a terrified elf girl (Lucy Fry) in possession of an all-powerful magic wand, which is one of three artifacts needed to release the sorcerer guy (he’s never given a name or even seen on screen).

Ward and Jakoby must then try to protect the girl and the wand from an entire city of ne’er-do-wells – a pattern that repeats itself ad nauseam. The film is the same scene over and over again: Ward and Jakoby running somewhere, being confronted by someone, asked where the wand is, and escaping.

As the lead character, Ward is maddeningly inconsistent. He’s presented at first as being generally tolerant of Jakoby and other orcs, but he also seems to toy around with racist ideas when it suits him. Basically, he’s only ever racist when the plot doesn’t call for him to be in hero mode, gunning down bad guys. Smith changes his approach scene to scene, one moment trying to be incorruptible and diplomatic, at other times world-weary and disillusioned. And he causes tonal whiplash with occasional Smithian wisecracks, including a Shrek reference that may have been hilarious in abstract, but makes no sense at all when you realize that a movie like Shrek would likely never have been made in Bright’s world.

For his part, Jakoby is underwritten to the extreme, which smacks of hypocrisy in a film that claims to promote equality between races. The film presents him as a meek, idealistic sort and the story's punching bag, when a better approach would be to make him the main character. What’s worse is that Edgerton’s impressive range as an actor is muffled by the orkish makeup and prosthetic teeth. Consequently, the movie can’t make any of the banter scenes between Edgerton and Smith land, draining the film of chemistry.

And Bright’s problems only continue from there. At times, it’s hard to believe that the same David Ayer who made End of Watch directed this film. Whereas his earlier cop film had a strong grasp of physical location and tension in action scenes, here Ayer seems to frequently lose track of his characters. A fight sequence in a gas station has some of the most slipshod blocking and editing I’ve seen in any film this year. The penultimate fight in an apartment should be the new go-to example when you want to talk about plot armour: the stabby, omnipotent villains suddenly begin toying with the heroes when they’d previously been shown to brutally dispatch anyone they encountered.

Edgar Ramírez as a ridiculous-looking federal agent elf, Kandomere. 

Edgar Ramírez as a ridiculous-looking federal agent elf, Kandomere. 

Because this movie doesn’t deserve spoiler protection, I need to reference the moment where Jakoby is shot in the chest and thrown into a fiery pit, only to be resurrected soon after when Tikka the elf girl (whose name only made me think about curry, incidentally) whips out the magic wand. Just like that, Landis’s screenplay violates one of the writer’s cardinal rules, and does so for the weakest of reasons. Jakoby’s new lease on life merely convinces him he’s part of some orkish prophecy, thereby ensuring he’ll live to see a sequel or two. And this is in addition to the fact that Tikka was apparently capable of magicking them out of their predicament the whole time, but didn’t because the movie hadn’t quite painted itself into a corner yet.

And let me tell you, for a movie that claims the mystical MacGuffin is so important, we see precious little magic from it. Only once does the movie allow the wand to manifest anything shocking or weird: when one of the villains’ assassins is turned into a gruesomely artistic living statue. Otherwise, we get no idea of the true power of the artifact, wasting the opportunity to conjure something that might prompt a truly funny reaction from Smith.

Word is that Netflix is already planning to make a sequel to Bright, and it wouldn’t surprise me if they spun off a TV series or two to fill out a new cinematic universe, to replace the Marvel one they may lose when Disney launches its own streaming service. Hoisting Bright to such a platform would surely give Landis lots of satisfaction, maybe helping him believe that he’s reinvigorating the business from the inside out. Sadly, he doesn’t seem to grasp that remixing isn’t the same as subversion. Cramming orcs and elves into a racial-politics cop film or superspy clichés into a stoner comedy is just doubling down on gimmickry. You still need a spark of originality to make real magic.

Bright gets one star out of four.

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Stray thoughts

  • The film’s treatment of its female characters is pretty awful. They’re either vicious murderers, frightened waifs or (in the case of all the human women) written out entirely.
  • The quick insert shots that revealed centaurs and dragons are part of this world completely distracted me. Who cares about wands when you’ve got dragons?
  • How did the elves get to be the wealthy ones? Are there any redeemable elves? We get barely any picture of one of the three main races in the film.