by Ken Bakely
The main issue with David Ayer’s Bright is its stunning lack of ambition. That it is set in an alternate world – one where humans and orcs and elves live together, if not in harmony – seems completely beside the point. Uninspired direction and a lackluster screenplay work in tandem to turn a fantastical universe into a droll buddy cop franchise starter. It moves, without aim, without sense, without purpose. Everything is circular – the dialogue never inspires, and the action scenes, which come at regular intervals, all feel the same. The stakes are never raised. From a cluttered opening sequence to an ending which takes three almost-exits before getting to its destination, the mediocrity comes hard and fast.
Will Smith, who usually oozes charisma in the same way everyone else breathes oxygen, recites his lines with an indifference that borders on the confusing. His role as Daryl Ward, a human police officer, in the Los Angeles of Bright’s making, should be critical to the film’s emotional core. He’s stuck with Nick Jakoby (Joel Edgerton), the LAPD’s first orc officer, as his patrol partner. The humans on the force want him out as soon as possible, but the meritocratic Daryl is willing to overlook social prejudice and evaluate Jakoby on his achievements (though even this got off to a rocky start, because the former was shot once while the latter was buying a burrito).
The plot staggers into gear from there, involving fighting the realms of dark magic, a potential revival of the interspecies wars which had caused this chaos to begin with, and various other contrivances. Bright’s script is not a tightly wound series of events, but a display of thudding social commentary, an anvil-like slam regarding race relations in America. The first scene involves Daryl mocking an implied “fairy lives matter” movement, and characters are shown to be bigoted if screenwriter Max Landis can have them describe Jakoby with the slur “pig-skinned” as many times as practically possible. Between his milquetoast allegory and Ayer’s muffled direction, the film winds up in its final state of existence, and all the inert formula that comes with it.
To be angry with a movie like this is to give it a meaning it neither has nor desires. This film resembles a product more than a project, a launching point for future installments – with its padded worldbuilding setting things up in one scene while obscuring in another, and its strained approach to explaining to the audience the background of this fantasy world. It’s on autopilot, long ago stripped of the creative individuality and the energized execution that a high concept like this deserves. Despite being an original concept, it feels every bit like a reboot of a decades-old franchise, made more bloody and angry for a 2017 crowd. It’s easy to imagine the egalitarian undertones, first made subtle for the Jim Crow era, brought to the forefront in a time when such a blunt message can be disseminated and appreciated. But even in that case, Bright would still fall short, because beyond that, it would never express why it’s a necessary reinterpretation.
Filmed like a network procedural and told like a half-forgotten tale, this is an obvious web exclusive for all the wrong reasons. Circular with a vengeance, crafted for an audience that has half their attention on the screen and the other half on their Twitter TL, Bright hobbles around one one leg. Its prestige production credits, especially the seamless integration of mythical creatures into an otherwise recognizable Los Angeles, serve only to prove the further point of a spoiled opportunity. The film’s title refers to a rare set of individuals who possess a powerful and dangerous ability to use magic. It’s the kind of concept that gets specialized in here, one which inspires legitimate interest, and then gets buried under spurious parallels to standard-order clichés. Would a sequel allow us to further explore this universe and characters? Even that is doubtful, because when a tepid first entry gives way to a more entertaining second, it’s because all the encyclopedic cramming was used up in front. There’s still a lot unexplained, and it’s not like there wasn’t the means to fix that.