This article previously appeared on Crossfader
Director: David Ayer
Genre: Thriller, Fantasy
“All the races are different,” Will Smith’s Officer Ward sagely explains to his daughter in her only scene. “Just cause they’re different doesn’t mean anybody is smarter or dumber, y’know, better or worse than anybody. You know, everybody is just trying to get along and live a good life.” Max Landis’s eloquent interpretation of race relations in America, using armored centaurs and “The Dark Lord” as allegory, is about as bright as the logline would suggest. I’m not sure what possessed Netflix to place their bet on a joint venture between the director of SUICIDE SQUAD and the writer of AMERICAN ULTRA, but the end product isn’t so much magical as it is cursed.
BRIGHT opens in an alternate Los Angeles that exists within a fantasy world, complete with classic staples like elves, fairies, and dragons. Ward (Smith) is a street cop in the LAPD who is partnered with Jakoby (Joel Edgarton), the department’s first orc officer. Ward, like most humans, passionately hates all orcs due to an ancient feud, but is forced to endure Jakoby as part of a recent diversity move. One night on a routine patrol, the pair find a magic wand, a powerful artifact desired by the Inferni, a coven of dark wizards that wish to wield it against the mystical Shield of Light and summon The Dark Lord after millenia of slumber to lead his forces once more in a bid for global domination.
You know what they say about slippery slopes
Look, I’m gonna level with you: BRIGHT is a beat-by-beat remake of END OF WATCH, Mexican gangsters and all, but this time you get to sit through entire tomes of ancient prophecy before each gunfight. Despite BRIGHT’s unique scenario, I can’t give Ayer credit for taking any risks, as the film is essentially a Middle Earth version of his One Good Movie. Likewise, Landis complicates a script that boils down to “kill all the bad guys and survive the night” with a legendary amount of lore, backstory, and rules that are rarely paid off. There’s a prophecy, ancient orc heroes, and more distracting gags and gizmos than you can shake an enchanted warhammer at, but absolutely none of it gels with the gritty street thriller buried underneath.
Most people that would be interested in seeing fantasy creatures duke it out in a contemporary setting are probably aware of the roleplaying game SHADOWRUN (read: Dungeons and Dragons in the future). SHADOWRUN had a simple premise: at the stroke of midnight of January 1st, 2012, everything becomes magical. Cue the dwarves and goblins. Introducing these supernatural elements in an abrupt and unexpected event justified their presence in a world that developed along a more traditional cyberpunk tangent until their appearance.
Landis, no doubt expecting “his Star Wars” to draw comparisons to the popular tabletop RPG, had the bright idea to set his film in a universe where magic has always existed. Aside from the additional complications of establishing this setting in a feature-length timeframe versus “suddenly, magic,” the lore actively obfuscates BRIGHT’s themes. Why does normal racism still exist among humans when there are very different, very dangerous creatures that they have warred with for centuries? Why would Americans even harbor grudges against orcs if they weren’t involved in their ancient (implicitly Old World) conflict?
Crazy ain’t the half of it
Maxie boy establishes through references to the Battle of the Alamo, the Rampart scandal, and THE JOE ROGAN EXPERIENCE that for better or worse, history has otherwise progressed normally up to this point. But how could it if such larger-than-life monsters and powers exist? Better question: why? Joel Edgerton describes a magic wand as “a nuclear weapon that grants wishes.” Why would anyone invent nukes in the first place if the ability to destroy the world has existed for millennia? These weapons are some of the most complex and expensive devices to ever exist; the cost to develop, deploy, and maintain them couldn’t possibly be justified when there are natural processes in place that can more directly replicate the same desired outcome.
Edgerton’s line communicates the significance of a wand to the audience, but makes no sense within BRIGHT’s own universe. In a similar vein, why do aircraft exist when people can just fly on the back of a dragon or pegasus? Why do some still carry swords in a world brimming with AK-47s? On their own, these each sound like nitpicks, but when viewed together, it becomes clear that BRIGHT’s setting is one gigantic fallacy.
Shouts out to the guy who tagged “NEVER QUIT” on the wall of the crack den
Landis must not have intended for anyone to think too hard about the lore he created, but if that’s the case, why would he even include it in a standalone movie that would benefit greatly from its omission? Assuming the background worked, the best case scenario would be CRASH for neckbeards. The problem is that when the fantasy elements aren’t slowing down what should be a rollicking adventure, they’re outright contradicting themselves. BRIGHT takes on legendary concepts, but doesn’t bother building actual legends around them. The resulting tapestry is so threadbare that it only takes a simple tug for the whole thing to unravel.
Maybe I’m thinking too hard about the minutiae of a movie where the logline is “Will Smith and an orc are cops.” Maybe I should unwind a bit and try to have fun with Netflix’s big blockbuster action movie. Let’s ignore for a second that BRIGHT’s core themes are built entirely on the rules of its universe, and that the rules are broken. Let’s ignore that the script is a bloated mess that fails to pay off half the points it brings up. Just how fun is BRIGHT?
“You heard of elf on a shelf? This is cop in a flop.”
I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t mildly entertained by Netflix’s behemoth. Big surprise: Will Smith is one damn charming guy, while Joel Edgerton provides an ideal wall for him to bounce off of. But outside of some tight ad-libbing between its leading men, BRIGHT doesn’t offer much to write home about. There’s action abound, yet very few scenes stand out owing to a mix of bland shots, boring set pieces, and mountains of wasted potential. For a movie that is so in love with its fantasy elements, BRIGHT sure doesn’t like bringing them out when the fireworks start.
Centaurs, dragons, and every orc that isn’t Edgerton are content to sit in the bleachers, meaning most of the bodycount generated by our buddy cops belongs to a legion of generic gangbangers. There’s also some elves that know gun-fu, but their wuxia antics blend awfully with the gritty street violence that the rest of the movie pedals. Despite being Netflix’s big push to break into the action market, BRIGHT disappointingly has nothing that you haven’t seen Ayer already do (and do better) in END OF WATCH.
I’ve had precious few nice things to say about BRIGHT, but I don’t hate the film with the same vitriol that the rest of the internet seems to hold for it. More than anything, I’m baffled by the sheer amount of wasted potential at play here. If Landis was so proud of his idea, wouldn’t he have put in more than just the bare minimum of work to bring it to life? Why not show us orc players in the NFL or these apparently awesome dwarven block parties, instead of just telling us about them? How about actually letting our characters visit the magical metropolis that is the Elven District, instead of setting most of the movie in the same South Central streets that every cop movie before this has explored? I could’ve lived with braindead social commentary delivered by goofy gangster stereotypes in fantasy trappings, but that BRIGHT can’t even make its madcap premise even a bit fun is extremely frustrating. Netflix has already doubled down on a sequel with Smith attached, so you can bet there’ll be no shortage of Trump ogre jokes and “fairy lives matter” lines in the future, but I seriously wonder who is actually going to watch it. Here’s hoping round two at least tries to do something with the ample material it’s given.
Verdict: Do Not Recommend