Like the majority of screenwriter Max Landis’ work, Bright has a heavenly elevator pitch. A gritty David Ayer directed Los Angles police drama inundated with enough orcs, elves, and magic to make J.R.R Tolkien consider summering in Inglewood. What a fascinating avenue to potentially comment on class warfare or police brutality. Unfortunately, Landis wouldn’t know the first thing about any of these potentially fruitful social issues beyond what he’s read on the internet. Instead of entrusting somebody more knowledgeable to fill in the gaps, he forged ahead on a numbingly tone-deaf screenplay and then handed it off to Ayer and the cultural mavens of Trigger Warning Entertainment. In its best form, this could’ve been a Dungeon-Master’s alternative to District 9, but instead opts to be the frat house version of Warcraft.
Affecting a similar structure to Ayer’s criminally under appreciated End of Watch, Bright throws us into the squad car of human Daryl Ward (Will Smith) and orc “diversity hire” Nick Jakoby (Joel Edgerton). There’s a bit of tension between them, as Daryl is just returning after being shot by an orc who Jakoby failed to capture. Ayer hamfistedly establishes the racially fueled tensions of the world by taking us on a couple of ride alongs through it. Clumsily written exposition (“Ain’t nothing over here but rich ass elves running the world and shopping”) and garish graffiti (“curse the police”) spell out exactly which fantasy creature is what group, in case the glaringly obvious background business and costume designs weren’t enough. Then, we get into our main story, where Nick and Daryl find themselves on the run through one hellish night, as corrupt cops, gangsters and a group of mad as hell elves lead by Noomi Rapace’s Leilah all rain fire on them in pursuit of a magic wand.
It’s okay if a police story’s main plot is a little lame. End of Watch’s was certainly nothing to write home about. What makes these films work is the characters, and no matter what race they are, every inhabitant of Bright’s world is equally lame. Ward and Jakoby are such an utterly generic pairing that you’ll quickly forget that the latter is a fantasy monster. Ward could’ve been a fascinating character. A person of color in the police force who has now found himself in a position of privilege above something that is literally considered inhuman. Instead, he’s just a trademark Will Smith wise-ass, leaving the star with little to do other than coast on his own considerable charisma. Edgerton, coming off a career best turn in It Comes at Night, is underutilized in a one-note turn caked under mounds of unconvincing make-up. Nick is a by the book cop with a strange face, and that’s about it. He and Smith have absolutely no chemistry together, and since their friendship falls flat, neither the serious nor comedic beats really hit.
That said, Smith and Edgerton are practically Shakespearian characters compared to the empty shell that Noomi Rapace is saddled with. Seemingly in a contest with himself to create an even more underwritten enchantress than the one in Suicide Squad, Ayer gives Rapace almost no screen time to even establish who she is. Every so often, we just cut to her growling at or killing people, and have to remind ourselves that she’s after our two main men. She’s such an afterthought that by the time she enters into the film’s pathetic climax, you might’ve even forgotten she was in the film at all. A shameful waste of a talented actress.
Landis’ script, deliberately written in Ayer’s style, feels like the writing of an angry thirteen-year-old boy desperately trying to impress his cooler cousin. Every line is gratingly vulgar, with F-Bombs being thrown out left and right to remind us that this is an adult movie. Where Ayer typically remembers to let his characters take breathers and talk about their loved ones, beliefs or mundane day to day, Landis doubles down on senseless crassness. The attempts at naturalistic squad car conversations between Smith and Edgerton are glaringly transparent, typically ending on some kind of cheap joke instead of letting the dynamics feel lived in. As such, there’s not much that the cooler older cousin can do once he steps into the chair to try to turn this thing into a real movie.
An ugly film, Ayer’s decision to drown out the vast majority of this film in pitch black night ensures that every location is completely sucked dry of personality. These don’t seem like living, breathing LA streets. They seem like small blocks that were closed off and production designed for a movie shoot. It’s all so transparent that you can almost see the craft services table off to the side of the stage of the grimy strip club. The action scenes never really push beyond the standard shoot-outs and car chases that we’ve seen in a million of these films. Ayer does a decent job of managing the chaos and making the violence hurt, but never does it in a particularly inventive way, never really weaving the fantasy elements into any of these scenarios. It screams of boredom, as if no amount of elf ears and make-up could convince Ayer that he wasn’t just treading water.
Bright is akin to watching a bunch of cosplayers from a fantasy convention act out scenes from their favorite police movies in costume. It doesn’t even come close to tapping into the potential of its premise, instead opting for cheap shock value and a generic story. Ayer is obviously treading water here perhaps it’s time he re-invent himself after the one-two groin punch of this and Suicide Squad. Hats off to Netflix for taking a chance on an original property, but next time they should invest their blockbuster bucks on a soapbox where people actually have something to say and can say it well.