By Aaron Rourke (Melbourne, Australia)
What is basically an amalgam of other, better movies, Bright may very well be the most expensive feature film produced by Netflix Studios (almost $100 million), but it is definitely not money well spent, and confirms yet again that all the cash in the world never guarantees quality film-making.
Set in an alternate Los Angeles, where the magical realm is a very real part of the human world, the homosapien population have to deal with creatures such as Orcs, Elves, and Fairies, and it’s an environment that is volatile to say the least. Orcs in particular are singled out for scorn, due to a miscalculated alliance that was made with the evil Dark Lord 2000 years ago (people sure can hold a grudge), and subsequently these creatures have been paying for this decision ever since.
One Orc, Nick Jakoby (Joel Edgerton) has managed to overcome all this prejudice to become a police officer, but in doing so has largely been ostracised from the Orc community, who see him as a traitor. Adding insult to injury is his partner, Daryl Ward (Will Smith), who is openly hostile towards his otherworldly colleague. Ward is returning from a near-fatal gunshot wound that was delivered by an Orc, who miraculously escaped while being pursued by Jakoby, and this matter has put him under suspicion by Ward, his fellow officers, and now Internal Affairs.
The two mismatched officers then endure a hell of a night as a war breaks out over a stolen wand, which in the wrong hands (and if all three are acquired) could resurrect the Dark Lord and destroy the world as we know it. You know, the usual.
Ward and Jakoby end up having to protect Tikka (Lucy Fry), an elf who escaped from her mysterious group with the wand, which belongs to Leilah (Noomi Rapace), a fellow elf who wants to bring back the Dark Lord. If that isn’t enough, the two have to avoid violent gangs and corrupt officers, who also want to get their hands on the powerful item, even though only a chosen few (known as Brights) can actually wield them.
To put it mildly, Bright is a tiresome mess. For a film that is almost two hours long, it lacks fundamental components crucially required to bring a movie together; things such as character introduction and development, story foundation, and a vivid exploration of the world being created. Bright feels as if it is beginning twenty minutes in, with viewers missing everything that has been set-up to the point where we first meet Ward and Jakoby. Ward’s home life is vaguely explained, Jakoby’s origins is barely touched upon, the main villain and her minions have almost no backstory, and the whole alternate universe is woefully neglected (brief shots of graffiti and some throwaway dialogue is supposed to suffice), leaving the whole endeavour as a wasted exercise.
There is no getting around the fact that the material is clearly influenced by Alien Nation (1988), a big budget sci-fi thriller that disappointed at the box-office, quickly terminating a possible franchise that Twentieth Century Fox obviously had in mind (although a number of TV movies were produced several years later). Like Bright, Alien Nation also didn’t make the most of its potential, becoming a familiar cop buddy/revenge flick all-too-quickly (it also still has one of the worst, most jarring end credit pop songs in movie history). But despite its numerous flaws, the 1988 film managed to cover the basics; introducing its main protagonists, their backgrounds and thoughts on the newly integrated society, them being partnered, and a point where character and story arcs can move forward. There was great chemistry between James Caan and Mandy Patinkin, their dialogue was lively and actually funny, and you could believe when they started to bond as officers and friends.
All that has been jettisoned here. The script by Max Landis (son of John) is poorly constructed, offering little-to-no insight into Ward and Jakoby, the world they inhabit, or the people/creatures they have to confront or fight. Any important or introductory detail is incompetently inserted later on (almost at the end of the film in the case of Leilah), so it is impossible to invest in these characters, making every life-or-death encounter dramatically inert. It is laughable watching Ward and Jakoby continually indulge in lumbering exposition while heavily armed opponents are obliterating their surroundings.
The other film that comes to mind is Cast a Deadly Spell, a 1991 HBO movie that was also set in an alternate L.A. (but the year was 1948), where magic was commonly used, and creatures lived among humans. Directed by Martin Campbell (Goldeneye, Casino Royale) and starring the wonderful Fred Ward, this criminally under-seen gem blended 40’s film noir and fantasy to great effect (please HBO, can you release this excellent sleeper on DVD?).
After helming the debacle that was Suicide Squad, David Ayer again oversees a project with fantastical elements, and the result is equally execrable. Ayer shows no imagination or ingenuity when it comes to the magical realm, and churns out the same old clichés in his depiction of gang life and corrupt cops. There is a staleness to Ayer’s approach and viewpoint, which has been repeated ad nauseam since his breakthrough script Training Day back in 2001; always plenty of surface level male posturing and profanity, but little else. Ayer initially appears like a cross between Sidney Lumet and Walter Hill, but is seriously missing the style and intelligence of those two legendary film-makers. Instead of Street Kings, watch Serpico; instead of End of Watch, track down Super Cops; instead of Sabotage, watch, well, nearly anything else.
After praising the chemistry and charisma of Caan and Patinkin, it is depressing to now have to talk about Will Smith and Joel Edgerton. Smith is excruciatingly one-note, yelling and ad-libbing in that way we’ve come to expect from him. Smith may consider what he is doing emotionally intense, but in the end screaming is just that; screaming. All of his one-liners fall embarrassingly flat. Edgerton has nothing to do, generally playing the straight man to Smith’s relentless mugging and non-stop ‘comic’ put-downs.
The rest of the cast are completely wasted, including Edgar Ramirez as an Elven Federal Officer, and Margaret Cho as Ward’s precinct sergeant. Rapace scores zero as the main villain, simply because there is nothing to her character; all that is required from her (and her cronies) is to look evil and kill lots of people.
Bright is a complete misfire, crippled by awful writing, tedious, repetitive direction, and an obnoxious central performance. Netflix, like Twentieth Century Fox before it, definitely want a franchise to flower from a potentially intriguing genre mash-up, and if the ratings listed are correct, sequels may occur this time around. If so, there had better be a marked improvement right across the board, because if this low standard is maintained, a high-flying success may crash-land very, very quickly.