Bright, the latest from director David Ayer and his first with Netflix, is set in a parallel world, where high fantasy creatures like elves, orcs, dragons and fairies walk (and fly) among modern man—and have throughout history, if not always peacefully. Yet it’s also set in a world where, as offhandedly mentioned by star Will Smith, Shrek still exists. In this context, is Shrek‘s fairy tale historical fiction? Is it equivalent to a cartoon in the so-called “censored eleven,” an animation that social progress will eventually label a wildly racist farce? Would the Shrek-like orcs actually admire this green hero, maybe get a sexy Fiona tattoo? Most likely, it wasn’t really thought through that much, and honestly, in the end it really doesn’t matter. The bigger issue, though, is that you can say that same thing about a lot of this thing.
The film is a bizarrely apt culmination of Ayer’s career, taking the setup of his 2012 drama End of Watch (racially-divided L.A.P.D. partners, South Central gangster archetypes, and one hell of a rough night) and adding in the gross makeup, Will Smith performance, and monotonous magical light show of a climax from last year’s Suicide Squad. Smith stars as Daryl Ward, a Los Angeles cop who, of course, is getting too old for this shit. Just a few years from finally getting his pension so he can quit, he was just shot on the job, hit in the body armor but shaken up nonetheless—in part because his partner wasn’t able to get the guy that did it. Also: HIS PARTNER IS AN ORC.
While Bright‘s L.A. largely looks like the city today, its racial divisions are decidedly more fantastical. Elves are the Rodeo Drive crowd, the posh elite, here segregated explicitly and voluntarily in their own little district (plainly labeled as such, à la the “whites only” signs of the ’50s). Humans are… pretty much regular humans, but now a bit less-than thanks to elves. (How much is never really apparent; the film is almost admirably microcosmic, but it raises many unanswerable questions. Orcs are seemingly the lowest rung: the outcast minority rendered pretty much identically to the West Coast thugs Ayer’s been obsessing over since writing 2001’s Training Day.
Joel Edgerton, unrecognizable in prosthetics and the colors of a grossly faded tattoo, plays Nick Jakoby, Ward’s partner and the first orc on the force. Predictably, he’s ostracized, mocked, and hated by most of his coworkers (among them Ike Barinholtz’s Pollard and, in some unexpected, inspired casting, a sergeant played by Margaret Cho). And for a good third of the film, that the central conflict—the pure-hearted, “aw, shucks” naïveté of Jakoby against the racist system. Until, suddenly, it’s just about a magic wand.
Written by heir arrogant Max Landis (of the similarly wand-fixated Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, Victor Frankenstein, Mr. Right, and numerous self-satisfied tweets) before getting an uncredited re-rewrite by its director, Bright often feels like Ayer never got around to even reading the back half of the script. What started as a dour, on-the-nose social commentary devolves further into the unredeemable as the film barfs up (once literally) so many a blockbuster tentpole cliché.
As explained by some nearly pointless federal agents—and a crazy bum who never serves any real narrative nor practical purpose beyond providing what’s generously a spoiler—Bright‘s title refers to the “chosen ones” of this world. They’re the wondrous magic users, the only people capable of wielding wands. These magic wands are exceedingly rare, and regulated by the federal Magic Task Force (the M.T.F. is apparently unaware that many trans-women are already using this acronym). So when one inexplicably turns up in a weird, rundown drug den, it becomes a wild battle to retrieve it as our officer heroes face off against some corrupt cops, a Latino gang, an orc gang, and a clandestine elven organization bent on raising their Dark Lord (bit nail-on-the-head, no?).
The elves here, initially painted as a stylish, affluent ruling class, almost immediately drop that mapping, falling apart into stock villains that are cold and robotic, with bad wigs and Chris Walken’s filed-down pointy teeth from Sleepy Hollow. Like the movie’s thinly sketched history of generations-long Dungeons & Dragons character wars, the elves are seemingly drawn from the Underworld franchise; clad in all black, they unconvincingly leap around wielding knives and machine guns, all the while making us stare into those ungodly baby-blue contacts. (Toss this thing on top of Justice League in the pile of Hollywood’s misguided fascination with disquietingly pallid irises.) They’re led by Noomi Rapace’s Leilah, who lost her wand, the film’s MacGuffin, because she casually loaned it out for another “bright” to hunt down and kill a “bright” defector who didn’t even have her own magic stick that is literally the most powerful thing on Earth. It’s basically like someone whose only goal is to nuke someone, and who owns one of the only nukes in existence, letting a friend borrow the nuke to kill an unarmed person who happens to also have a finger that could push the big red button. But Leilah also says, “I’m a warrior; a priestess; a lover; I am whatever my lord needs me to be,” so as the elven Meredith Brooks, it sort of makes sense she’d so quickly fall from her elevated position.
Back in the ’80s, Alien Nation (first as a film and then a series, TV movies, and more) already did the “bald, splotchy-headed L.A.P.D. sidekick as an analogue for real-life racism” thing. As flawed as those efforts were, at least they had an internal logic. Bright, for as borderline laudable it is that it doesn’t pander to its audience, just doesn’t make sense as either a film or a concept. Why does the entire impetus occur? Why do these feds and hobos exist in a futile periphery? If we’re still beholden to our Earth’s actual modern day, what happened in the civil rights era here? Is an elf the U.S. President then? It’s not that Bright needed to address every question it raises, but it consistently feels like it doesn’t have the answers; it’s far more an eye-rolling “what if?” of a Twilight Zone episode than the “[new] Star Wars” Landis once but no longer feels he devised. From its early, crassly-conceived “fairy lives don’t matter today” line to its abrupt buddy-comedy epilogue that closes in, at best, a nod to the far better mismatched cop team-up of L.A. Confidential, Bright creates a world where Shrek isn’t just one of many questions—it’s also a slightly better piece of shit of a movie.
Director: David Ayer
Runtime: 117 minutes
Cast: Will Smith, Joel Edgerton, Noomi Rapace, Lucy Fry, Édgar Ramírez, Ike Barinholtz, Margaret Cho