Director: David Ayer
Cast: Will Smith, Joel Edgerton, Lucy Fry, Noomi Rapace, Edgar Ramirez
Watch Bright online in the UK: Netflix UK
“I think we might be in a prophecy,” says Jakoby (Joel Edgerton) to his partner, Ward (Will Smith). “We’re not in a prophecy,” comes the reply. “We’re in a stolen Toyota Corolla.” It’s a neat quip that defines what’s good about Bright, Netflix’s first big blockbuster: at its heart, it’s a buddy cop movie about two men who don’t really get along. Oh, and one happens to be an orc. And they both live in an alternative fantasy version of Los Angeles, where fairies, elves and centaurs all live alongside humans in not-very-peaceful peace. Also, something about a prophecy involving a Dark Lord returning after 2,000 years. And a magic wand on the loose that may or may not make his resurrection possible.
The movie’s title comes from the name given to the select few who are able to hold that wand without being imploded into magical miasma – and that’s the only explicit piece of exposition we get in a story that, in case the paragraph above didn’t make it clear, is overstuffed with, well, stuff. The rest of Bright’s world is built confidently, from an opening title sequence featuring pointed graffiti messages (bordering on overkill) to a conversation between Ward and his daughter about the importance of tolerance and mutual respect. Ward, however, doesn’t fully embrace that philosophy: we join him as he’s returning to the force, after being shot by an orc, and finding it hard to trust his partner again, after he failed to protect his back.
It’s a neat dynamic for a movie to revolve around, and Bright is at its best when attempting to explore issues of race, friendship and loyalty through the lens of two police officers forced to share a patrol car. One of the standout scenes sees Jakoby making fun of all the human facial expressions he knows, while a brief ride through Elftown, where the rich, wealthy creatures live a flashy existence far away from LA’s multicultural fringes, has a chilly detachment that chimes with a recognisable inequality. It’s easy to knock a blockbuster that wears its social issues on its sleeve (see: Elysium) and Bright builds a sandpit that tries to contain something substantial, while nodding to untold depths, from factions of orcs to briefly-glimpsed dragons.
It’s a shame, then, that any promise held by its backdrop is largely undermined by its magical plotting – in only two hours, the film crams in so many ideas that it never really develops any of them. A film solely focused on Ward and Jakoby, a la Training Day, could prove to be an interesting, unique tale. But this isn’t just End of Watch: this is End of Watch meets The Lord of the Rings, and so it also has to fit in Tikka (Lucy Fry), the Bright they find at a crime scene, who is on the run from an evil elf (Noomi Rapace), as well as the FBI’s magic branch (headed up by another Elf, played by Edgar Ramirez). Needless to say, none of these people get much screentime, leaving all three of them annoyingly wasted in their roles (particularly Fry, who is essentially playing Leeloo from The Fifth Element, but given much less dialogue).
That also means that we have less time to spend with the more grounded elements of the universe – perversely, the script (by Max Landis) is so rushed that it ends up almost reinforcing racial stereotypes at points, while one joke about fairy lives not mattering is also misjudged. Fortunately, Ayer is a veteran at LAPD action, and that shines through in some impressive shootouts and fight sequences. Shot with a dark palette that lets the neon wands and explosions stand out, those set pieces may be frustratingly sometimes hard to see, but Ayer keeps the pace up enough for things never to get dull.
With such a frenetic clash of genres, though, you almost wish things did: there’s a slapdash feel to Bright’s stretch to incorporate its most fantastical flourishes, as we see several people pick up a wand and blow up (or not) seemingly at random. Those references to the Dark Lord, meanwhile, don’t really pay off. A film focused on either magic or cops with badges would perhaps prove more rewarding.
The central duo are nonetheless convincing. Smith is on typically charismatic form as Ward, a more downbeat figure than he usually plays. Edgerton, meanwhile, is the real star of the show. Frequently stealing scenes in other films’ supporting roles, he does so again as Jakoby, an outcast in two different races who still manages to bring a naivety and levity to the screen – not bad going for someone under umpteen layers of prosthetics.
Balancing their performances with the rest of Bright’s universe is the magic trick this epic doesn’t pull off. That doesn’t make Bright the worst movie of the year, but it does highlight the challenges of Netflix’s industry-changing model, as it takes on traditional distribution with a big chequebook and creative freedom for its filmmakers. If more oversight might have benefitted Bright, the result is a commendably rare thing in the current Hollywood climate: an original, adult movie that isn’t based on a book or video game and doesn’t climax with a Marvel-esque CGI fest. Netflix took a gamble with Bright and wound up producing a missed opportunity. The result might only be exciting in bursts, but what is thrilling is that Netflix is willing to take more gambles in the future with other storytellers. Even Bright’s intriguing universe is getting another roll of the dice: a sequel is already in the works.
Bright is available on Netflix UK, as part of £7.49 monthly subscription.