Bright isn’t the unmitigated disaster many have led you to believe. By all means, it is a shockingly wrongheaded big swing for the fences on Netflix’s part, but the real crime here is far less exciting than all that. It’s just a boring, lazy film with no soul.
The film is essentially a remake of Alien Nation, except in place of aliens, writer Max Landis (uh-oh) and director David Ayer (another uh-oh) have crudely inserted fantasy tropes, namely Orcs as lower-class citizens and Elves as one-percenter elites. There’s no crime in retelling a story, so long as you do something with it. Bright, unfortunately, pats itself on the back for thinking of this novel setup and stops there, playing lip service to racial politics while offering a new avenue for David Ayer to aver his tough guy, gang-whisperer bona fides. In the periphery, we’re granted snapshots of a much better film involving dragons, minotaurs, pesky faeries, and a long-ago fought war against a Dark Lord.
But nah, no one’s into exploring that. Instead we get the story of how definitely not racist, but also sort of racist cop Scott Ward (Will Smith) gets on with his Orc partner Nick Jacoby (Joel Edgerton). The film makes an interesting choice to start not at the beginning of this partnership, but just as it resumes after Ward’s recuperation from a point-blank shotgun blast to the chest, which opens many questions regarding Ward and Jacoby’s history the film never bothers to answer. We have to settle for a couple speeches from Will Smith about how racism against Orcs is bad, mixed with scenes in which he is unnecessarily cold to his obviously well-meaning and beleaguered partner, whom everyone else on the force appears to hate.
You’d think if nothing else, the writer of Training Day and director of End of Watch would at least nail these cop-talk scenes. He doesn’t. Along with everything else in Bright, all we get is surface exposition, the only personality arriving via cheesy jokes that don’t exactly work because Joel Edgerton’s Orc can’t carry the burden of being our put-upon hero and comic relief at the same time. Had Ward and Jacoby started the movie with a sense of camaraderie and friendship uniting them against a racist police department, Bright might have had a chance at adding something interesting to the tropes it explores. As it is, we’re just going through motions until the plot begins, which takes way longer than you’d expect.
That plot involves a renegade Elf who possesses one of three magic wands that when united can bring back some sort of Dark Lord. Ward and Jacoby must protect her and the wand from her former Elf associates, the entire police department, Orcs who hate Jacoby and a street gang that seems wildly outgunned and out of place in the story.
This “Run All Night” structure could have alleviated the many faults that plague Bright’s horrific world-building if only the film’s action didn’t look so horrible. Along with poorly establishing the rules of these various species, Ayer can’t seem to construct clear or propulsive action set pieces, and what should be the film’s most exciting moments are a slog as a result. We get some nice bits of gore, at least.
This leaves any remaining hope for Bright in the hands of its cast. Will Smith somehow still manages to charm despite playing a jerk who over-drops F-bombs like a kid who just learned what they are. And Joel Edgerton deserves some kind of award for creating a character you can feel for despite a script that treats him like symbol rather than a person. Both Smith and Edgerton suffer through nonsensical inconsistencies as the script bends them to its needs from one scene to the next. It’s worse for Noomi Rapace and Edgar Ramirez, neither of whom register on any level. They both could, and probably should, have been played by total randos and it wouldn’t have mattered. You feel particularly bad for Rapace, who barely even gets to speak.
Bright frustrates mostly because it’s such a waste. While derivative and about as deep as a high school essay on the Civil Rights Movement, there is potential here for an interesting fantasy world explored by a somewhat likable pair of characters. But the film almost seems to go out of its way to ignore that potential. News that a sequel is already in the works is actually welcome, but only with a creative team interested in actually exploring what’s been set up here. The film ends with Ward and Jacoby in very promising places, and I would love to see that play out. Instead, we’re probably going to get a movie in which Jacoby and Ward still hate each other while investigating more dirty cops and saving the world from another bunch of Elf bullshit. And it’ll be yet another movie that robs us of true David Ayer craziness in service of mainstream pandering, which he sucks at.