‘Bright’ Review: A Big, Loud Faerie Tale That Loves Bullets More Than Magic
If you’re at all confused as to why Netflix paid absolutely out the wazoo for Bright—$3.5 million for Max Landis’ spec script alone, $90 million total—watching the film is actually a pretty good explanation. This is a story with one foot firmly planted in a franchise, a film practically begging to be spun off, prequel-d, sequel-d, and rebooted to the tune of that sweet, sweet Marvel money. Landis’ script puts in a ton of legwork fleshing out an alternate universe where humans live beside creatures straight out of a high-fantasy novel. Faeries get caught in your bird feeder. Impeccably-dressed elves live uptown in their ivory towers. A dragon casually flies over the Los Angeles skyline. There’s also a brief appearance by a centaur LAPD officer who, quite frankly, I’m more interested in than any of the main characters. There’s a rich, fully realized world here to explore. But does that make Bright—not the idea of Bright, but Bright itself—worth a watch?
The answer really depends on how much exposition you can handle over the course of two hours. Bright is a movie that spends far too much time explaining itself—and, often, re-explaining itself—that the actual story, when we finally get to it, is not much more than empty gunshots and blood splatter with a faerie tale twist. Which is a shame, because the plot is actually a simple bit of fun buried beneath a heavy dose of explanation. Will Smith plays Daryl Ward, a beleaguered LAPD officer forced to ride with an orc partner named Nick Jakoby (Joel Edgerton, under heavy prosthetics). About 2,000 years ago, orcs chose the wrong side in a Tolkien-esque clash of clans and there’s been bad blood ever since. But Ward and Jakoby have to put differences aside when they come across a magic wand—Jakoby calls it a ”nuclear weapon that grants wishes,” my favorite sentence ever spoken—and spend a single night pursued by gangbangers, crooked cops, the “Magic Task Force,” and a supernaturally deadly elf named Leilah (Noomi Rapace, doing her darndest) who just wants her magic wand back.
That is…a lot to take in, and it’s only the bare bones of story that goes on to include dark cults, gang initiations, and no shortage of “chosen one” prophecies. This film has so many prophecies. There is a moment of absolute unintentional hilarity where a character in priest robes describes something that just happened as a prophecy and is never seen again.
In fairness, director David Ayer (Suicide Squad) doesn’t do the already muddy script any favors. When the film is focused purely on the seediness of the impoverished corners of Los Angeles, the director gets to show off the trademark gorgeous grittiness he displayed in End of Watch. (There’s a great opening sequence that manages to tell a story strictly through street graffiti.) But my goodness, does David Ayer love automatic weapons. The uzi budget on this movie must have been out of this world. If you love scenes where someone walks into a crowded club and fires an uzi into the air (possibly even two at the same time) then friend, watch Bright twice and thank me later. For anyone else, this becomes almost comically repetitive. After a while, it becomes clear that Landis’ impulse for slaughter and Ayers’ impulse to display the loudest possible form of filmmaking at all times is a match tailor made for obnoxious storytelling.
Of course, there are (I’m sorry) bright spots in all this. After all this time, Smith still has the ability to save almost anything through sheer force of charm. There’s genuine odd-couple chemistry between Ward and Jakoby that is very sparsely played just for laughs. That, actually, is one of the most refreshing things about this movie. One can easily imagine a big studio Bright that constantly looks to the audience like isn’t it weird how there are orcs? Part of Bright’s uneven appeal is that it’s often a very straight-faced movie that just happens to include Will Smith killing a faerie with a broom.
Unfortunately, there are just too many uncomfortably glaring issues to make that appeal worthwhile. For one, Landis’ script is not great to its female characters. The women here are either housewives, mute killing machines, or strippers. Leilah’s sister Tikka (Lucy Fry) is, essentially, the third part of Ward and Jakoby’s protagonist team. But she splits the bulk of the film’s second act between cowering, getting lost in crowds, and reacting to events with a childlike naivety despite seemingly being an adult.
At first glance, it seems admirable to tell a parable of sorts about modern day class structure using orcs as a stand-in for the downtrodden and discriminated against. You see exactly the points Landis is trying to make. But over the course of Bright’s runtime it becomes uncomfortably clear that by using orcs as a surrogate for oppressed minorities you end up erasing actual oppressed minorities from the story. It quickly transitions from “Oh, I see what you’re doing” to “Maybe you should not have done this.”
In the end, it’s probably a blessing for Bright that it ended up on Netflix, where it can sit in a queue for as long as the audience wants. It’s the opposite of must-see. It’s a collection of admittedly impressive action sequences (like, $90 million impressive) trying to be so much more. Barring a certain Centaur Cop spin-off, Bright mostly deserves to be dimmed.