‘Bright’ feels original and fleetingly ambitious with its meshing of fantastical elements and hard-knock policing to envision Los Angeles some 2000 years after the battle of Helms Deep. But it’s a bit of a wreck. You realize the film is fighting a losing battle when it starts with a bland montage likening Orcs to African Americans who have faced centuries of oppression. The lack of tact with its political undertones is to be one of its major failings (*cough* graffiti of Orcs doing the Black Power salute *cough*). Beyond this, It’s generally tedious and bursting at the seams too many ideas from writer Ma Landis, when simplicity may have been its saving grace.
Directed by David Ayer, ‘Bright’ has Orcs, Elves and other fantastical creatures living together. I fleetingly wondered if all the Orcs descended from Africa or if this dimension had a different set of continents. Alas, zero attention paid to world building, meaning questions like this remain unanswered. We just know there was some sort of Dark Lord which the Orcs served some 2000 years ago so all creatures discriminate against them and view them as good for nothing untrustworthy thugs that hang around street corners and so on. So it’s a big deal that Will Smith’s Ward, a police officer, is paired with the first ever Orc officer, Jakoby (Joel Edgerton), though it’s not a willing union.
No one wants to partner Jakoby, who is generally upbeat, good-natured and looks like he was plucked out of a Pixar movie. He is only on the force because of some form of diversity programme. The general prospects of Orcs seem resigned to minimum wage jobs and crime. Other officers fear Jakoby would side with his kind over the uniform and this sentiment is fuelled by an incident early on in the film, where Jacoby loses a fleeing Orc who had just shot Ward. But Ward is supposed to be the conflicted lens through which we view this fractured society. On one hand, he expects Jakoby to sit still as acts of police brutality are visited on fellow Orcs. Cops before Orcs, we are told. But on the other hand, when pushed, the cops before Orcs ethos goes out the window for Ward.
The film never sits to reflect on this dynamic. Because Orcs are meant to represent the oppressed minority, Ayer seems to be saying, of course, it’s wrong the way Orcs are treated while paying lip service to the racial commentary. It’s especially weird since the Orcs aren’t really hated because of their nature or skin colour per se but because they chose the wrong side in a battle centuries ago. There is no talk of them being enslaved or anything. They just seem to be pariahs. I guess the argument is that we should have moved on by now. No one spits on Germans because of WWII. But why liken it to the struggle of the black man? Does it mean there is no racism among humans? Why are we robbed of the perspective of Elves who are at the top of this ladder? So many questions on this front but frankly, ‘Bright’ does not deserve this much thought.
There is slightly more coherence in ‘Bright’ when the core plot kicks in. Ward and Jacoby come across a magic wand, known to be very rare and incredibly powerful, seemingly able to grant the wielder’s wishes. At least that is the impression I got given the way they are regarded, like a magic lamp with a hibernating genie. Thing is, not anyone can handle a wand. The average person explodes when he or she comes into contact with a wand. Only Brights can wield a wand (Yeah, I was surprised to find the title meant for something). Along the line, it becomes a little bizarre that so many people desperately covet the wand given the immense risk.
Ward and Jacoby, of course, run into a Bright named Tikka (Lucy Fry) who looks like a wretched victim of human trafficking from Eastern Europe. They have to survive the night by besting dirty cops, the FBI, Elves, Orcs and human gangs who want in on the wand for various reasons. Noomi Rapace leads a group of powerful Elves longing for the days of the Dark Lord (seriously, who is this Dark Lord?). It feels like Rapace is enjoying herself as the cold and vicious Leilah, but her’s is such a serious role she feels like a mere henchman, which, mind you, is fine if there is serpentine Charles Dance-type waiting in the wings to emerge as the main baddie. I’ve already described Jakoby as Pixar character and he is the source of the film’s spurts of humor whilst also featuring in passably earnest moments with Ward.
Edgerton’s chemistry with Smith is fine, but ultimately a mere footnote in the annals of buddy cop lore. Smith is supposed to be the veteran cop counting down the days to his pension, and maybe casting someone like Forest Whittaker would have provided a better Roger Murtaugh motif. There isn’t much by way of back story for him, except that he has a wife and little girl along with an unhealthy level of debt for a man nearing retirement. We keep being told he isn’t the most likeable of persons but the story never effectively communicates this point. All we see is a guy trying to survive the night with a partner he finds mildly annoying. In a better world, that would have been enough.
The buddy cop beats in ‘Bright’ come as no surprise. I still think fondly of Ayer’s fine LA crime drama ‘End of Watch’. But why this film went so hard on the fantasy elements, I have no idea. Landis’ screenplay wants us to feel like the oddities are par for the course but its anything but. Consider the big show Ward makes of getting rid of a pesty fairy early on. A can of fairy poison in the periphery of the screen would have been more subtle and more effective, like the way we just happen to see centaurs around – no explanation needed.
‘Bright’ is essentially trying to be a buddy cop flick, a fantasy adventure and a “subtle” social commentary on race relations and it fails at this. No doubt about it. It entertains at times though most of the action is just noise. Smith has seen better days and definitely better scripts. At times it feels like two different films and hopefully, the expected sequel doesn’t get too cocky and just aims for your regular action flick. But given the major plot points, I doubt it. This may just be the beginning of series of fantastical nuttiness.