3 out of 5
Directed by: David Ayer
There are… a lot of problems with Bright. It’s written for a version of Will Smith from his Independence Day swagger prime, and then rewritten with gritty street talk as imagined by a teen who’s probably never left the suburbs; that is not the version of Will Smith who was acting in 2017 – he’s definitely aged out of being able to do silly swagger, and is more gruff than gritty – and there’s a much better version of his character that emerges at key points that leans into that. It’s got a few ideas too many – good ones – and shows some tact in dealing with them, but then gets bizzy with setting up some franchise-y lore (which may be a mix of having a Max Landis script as rewritten by director David Ayer) and never quite gets around to making good on its social parables, nor does it have the room or interest in diving too deep in its fairy / orcs / humans mash-up world its created, instead sitting with on-the-nose, easy-to-nod-along-with dialogue for the former, and swiped bits and pieces from any other fantasy flick for the latter. Lastly, director David Ayer has never – in my mind – proven himself very capable of capturing mood or scope with his films, which are two rather important movie qualities… His lighting and characters’ sassitudes always suggests a certain amount of street-level bravado, but there’s no immersion; no threat or thrills. Action sequences are shot with the same intensity as dialogue, and both are shot with a level of remove that shows a lack of connection to scene rhythm. So the movie just happens. You can glance down and up and see people talking; you can glance down and up and see a car being rammed sideways down an alley and the effect comes across exactly the same.
I was very aware of these flaws the whole time I was watching Bright, and yet… I enjoyed it. Those too many good ideas are very much in its favor, and for every cringey Will Smith moment, Joel Edgerton’s part as Smith’s cop Daryl Ward’s orc partner, Jakoby, is perfect. The dude owns the whole movie. Orcs are written to not be dullards, exactly, but rather having problems with human phrasings and sarcasm – a very similar concept to learning English as a second language. This could be played for idiot jokes, and that possibility is in the script, but one of the benefits of Ayer’s samey-same approach is that all characters come across on an even plane, and then Edgerton backs this up with his approach to the character, which is surely funny, but also rather charming, while still maintaining a sort of brutish edge that the humans of Bright’s world judge harshly. As the flick proceeds, and Ward and Jakoby find a fitful bond when having to save a rogue Elf from other elves hunting her down, Edgerton is again fantastic, and the range he brings to what could’ve been a one-note character allows Smith to step up with his chops and bounce very effectively off of him. They don’t automatically sidle into buddy cop mode – there’s a lot of history and hate there – but they find a 48 Hours brutal bickering camaraderie that’s definitely a highlight.
The hodgepodge of fantasy and race commentary also “work” precisely because they aren’t intermingled. The initial part of the flick functions to introduce us to Orcs as a lesser race, judged by a decision made as a group many years in the past; to Elves as upper class; to Jakoby’s headline making trial run as the first-ever Orc cop and the racism that kicks off both from humans and his “blooded” clansmen; and then the second part of the flick transitions in to some yadda yadda resurrection of the dark lord, and rare beings called Brights who can use magic and wield wands, and Tikka, the elf-on-the-run-with-one-of-said-wands who takes Ward and Jakoby on One Bad Night through all sorts of bad parts of town. Had there been an effort to keep both of these things rolling throughout the whole movie, it likely would have been clunky. As-is, the first bit just comes across as a clever spin but ignorant – it’s too obvious by far, and doesn’t dive deep enough – and the second bit is all MacGuffin. And of course, there’s a better version of this that dedicates itself to one thing or another.
But, as mentioned, I can’t deny that I enjoyed myself. Given a high profile release by Netflix, this is exactly the kind of distraction I’d ask for in a Summer blockbuster type, but with the millions spent on such Transformers-y things of the non-streaming variety, I tend to find myself overwhelmed with noise and fury instead of properly distracted. Bright did the trick, though, and so I do look forward to more distraction from its sequel…