I would have loved to be in the room when someone at Netflix suggested getting David Ayer, fresh off making Suicide Squad, the worst blockbuster movie of the past decade to make their first big foray into expensive, Hollywood style blockbuster filmmaking. While Bright is not the disastrous non-movie that Squad was, it is very much cut from the same cloth as Ayer’s previous debacle. It is a dreary, unimaginative and bloated movie that could have been good if the filmmakers had bothered to brush up on the basics of storytelling before moving forward with production. The film is set in an alternate history version of LA where orcs, elves and fairies all exist. However, the world of the film is deliberately a straightforward Gritty Cop Dramatm with the only major change being that racial animosity exists between humans and the other fantasy races rather than just between groups of humans. Will Smith plays Daryl Ward, a jaded cop that we are introduced to in a cringe inducing scene that involves him beating up a fairy and quipping “fairy lives don’t matter today”. Joel Edgerton plays Nick Jakoby, Ward’s Orcish partner. When the pair come across Tikka (Lucy Fry), a mysterious girl with a magic wand that everyone in LA is after, they have to put aside their personal differences and help keep the girl and the wand out of the hands of street gangs, corrupt cops and renegade elves.
Smith is fine in the lead role. He reigns in his natural charisma and convincingly sells Ward’s hard edged, cynical personality. However, the real stand out is Joel Edgerton. Edgerton imbues Jakoby with stiff and awkward mannerisms that make him come off like a socially anxious version Drax the Destroyer. Smith and Edgerton have great chemistry and watching them play off each other is a high point of the film’s first act. After the main plot kicks in, the character work that informs the first 30 minutes falls by the wayside, so the characters can do nothing but tell us where they are going, why they are going there and what they are about to do. The exposition is as gratuitous as it is tedious, and you can’t help but wish Ayer had gone less in the direction of Suicide Squad and made a film more in the vein of his solid, low key cop drama End of Watch.
It is a shame that Bright doesn’t go all the way and imagine how human race relations would be affected by a history this different from our own. Do people of colour in the United States still face oppression? If not, shouldn’t the racial makeup of the lower-class neighbourhoods that we see in the film be different? If racism is still present among humans, shouldn’t this be something that the film explores in the relationship between its central characters (strangely, the film could have a white lead and nothing would really change about the character dynamics at all)? These are all questions that I feel like writer Max Landis couldn’t really be bothered to answer, perhaps because he was too busy laughing about how “fairy lives matter” is like “black lives matter”. The big problem with the allegory and the alternate history stuff is that is all superficial. The film simply has nothing interesting to say about race or racism. There are interesting ideas on the table and a better filmmaker might have used this film to examine the contingency and arbitrariness of certain stereotypes and racial association that the viewer may have. Unfortunately, Ayer is not that filmmaker.
Underneath the racial allegory is nothing but an overlong, exposition laden cop drama that is filled with repetitive, boiler plate action scene. It is astounding how boring some of the film’s action scenes are, given the canvas the filmmakers must work with. The film establishes that orcs have super strength early on (we see an orc lifting a car, so his child can get a ball out from under it) but this doesn’t manifest in the action scenes in any interesting way. Instead, we get a lot of standing and shooting at things, with the elves jumping around to make something – anything – pop on screen. The problem is that Ayer doesn’t give his action scenes any kind of internal narrative. The duration of each scene could be halved, and nothing would be lost because the scenes don’t exist for any compelling reason. The action fails on both the level of spectacle and narrative and it feels like you could trim almost 15 minutes out of the movie without losing anything.
There plenty of other mistakes, such as the complete absence of a character for Lucy Fry to play (it’s unbelievable, they don’t bother to build her relationship with the other characters at all but said relationship ends up being the dramatic crux of the film’s second half). Honestly though, I am as bored counting these mistakes as I was watching the movie. In the future, let’s hope that Netflix focuses more on quality and less on proving that they can produce a big studio movie just like everyone else.