David Ayer presents a very different take on the “L.A. cop” film with an insane fantasy-remixed world that hits most of its targets
“You know what that feels like, when your own people hate you?”
Genre mash-ups are tricky beasts that can either result in the best or the worst thing ever, but Bright’s idea just sounds all sorts of awesome. In fact, it’s so awesome and off the wall, even for screenwriter Max Landis (American Ultra, Chronicle), that the film’s script launched a crazy bidding war to acquire this madness in a bottle. Bright basically takes your typical L.A. cop yarn, but then crazies it up by making the fractured partnership between a human and an orc, in a world that injects itself with unrestrained fantasy tropes. This volatile partnership comes down to the safety of the entire world falling in jeopardy over a missing magic wand.
Now, why wouldn’t this be the coolest film of all time?
Bright might ultimately fall short of that lofty goal, but it’s still a very impressive film that will lay eggs in your brain that will make you think about it long after it’s over. The best thing about all of this though is that this is really just a cop film where the genre has evolved to an insane degree. It’s still a movie that boils down to a story about police corruption and abuses of power. Bright explores universal themes, but simply in a fantastical, heightened way.
Bright makes some very brilliant, economical decisions over the course of its introduction that earns the film a lot of goodwill. A fictitious Biblical quote from this world’s scripture (“Only a Bright can control the power of the wand.” – The Grand Prophecy 5:17) is the first thing that audiences see. This clever device speaks volumes and achieves just as much as some hackneyed text scroll or clunky exposition dump narration. It’s a creative way to begin the film and appropriately prepare the audience for this world.
This moment is followed up with an even more satisfying example of Bright’s world-building skills. Sprawling shots of Los Angeles’ graffiti and tags punctuate the opening credits, only they’re full of artwork and slang that praise elves, attack orcs, and treat these new minorities like they’re no different than the respective gangs that comprise our Los Angeles. Simple scenes of city skylines have subtle details like dragons off in the clouds that also add more character to everything. There’s an insane amount of work in the production design and background elements of this film. You’ll likely catch something new every time you watch the movie. There’s a full world on display here.
In spite of the film’s ambitious scope, this is a film where cops still say things like, “I am the city,” but then within the same breath they’ll mutter something like, “Fairy lives don’t matter in this neighborhood.” It’s the type of movie where a cop’s daughter is just worried about her dad’s safety and the LAPD have internal trust issues and past demons to work through. Landis’ script is incredibly self-aware and tongue-in-cheek, but it tows the line well without pushing things too far into parody and losing the audience in the process. This still might be too much for some people, but Landis and Ayer both work very hard to balance the film’s many tones. It plays with generic cop tropes at the end of the day, but dressed up in quite the new package.
Suddenly differences like race aren’t differences any longer. Everyone is collectively a human and they’re too busy tearing apart other species to have time to break down each other. A bunch of racist human cops give Ward (Will Smith) a hard time for having an orc as his partner. They’re worried that more orcs might slowly take over the police department and take their jobs as Ward is more than willing to look the other way.
What’s even more interesting is the position that this puts the orc, Nick Jakoby (Joel Edgerton), in. He practically gets jubilant about attacking other orcs, as if his zero tolerance towards them will bring him closer to humans or act as proof that there’s some fundamental difference between them. Its gives Jakoby a great struggle to work through and Joel Edgerton completely rises to the material. He’s virtually unrecognizable in this role and it’s a testament to the growing chameleon of a character actor that he is.
On that note, Will Smith keeps things rolling along as Daryl Ward. Smith does great work in this character, but it doesn’t really feel like he’s bringing anything new to the table. This is much more Edgerton’s film to show off, but Smith works as Ward and he gets the job done, much like his cop persona within the film.
It may come as a surprise, but a lot of the best moments between Ward and Jakoby are simple scenes where they let their banter run long and focus on their chemistry. The two fall into a very comfortable rhythm and even though lines like, “Get your Shrek-looking ass out of here…” may raise more questions than they’re worth, they’re still a lot of fun.
As Ward and Jakoby do their rounds, the story comes down to a group of Dark Elves who hope to retrieve three magic wands in order to revive their Dark Lord and cause an uprising all-out war. The Bright are the only ones that can handle these wands without dying, and so the magic division of the FBI is tasked with hunting and taking down these Brights to prevent this untimely endgame. This also leads to the film’s compelling idea that humans are deeply attracted to magic, almost like it’s an addiction. It’s something that can easily corrupt in this world and it’s why the government has outlawed its use. It’s this greed and desire for power over a wand that drives much of the conflict and action of the film’s final act.
It’s also worth noting that Max Landis has involved fantasy elements in his projects to an increasing degree, too. Landis’ other major work from this year—his excellent television series, Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency—also centers around a magic wand in literally the same fashion. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it’s just interesting. While the opinion on Landis can be contentious at times, I’m a large fan of his work and the creative ways in which he explores and reinvents genres. Bright handles the magic wand material with this great impact because of the gritty, beaten down aesthetic of the film. Yes, there are fantasy elements present like fairies and centaurs, but this is first and foremost a dirty cop drama and that’s how it operates. It’s surely no coincidence that Ayer is also the writer of Training Day, a film that brilliantly explores the same ideas, but in a grounded reality. Ayer knows how to hit the right notes and those sensibilities work a lot better here than if some lighter, fantasy director came in to steer the ship with a gentler approach.
To build off of that, Bright is very much the culmination of this weird evolution of cop films through Ayer’s filmography. Ayer is able to say more on the topic simply because he has such experience in the field. It’s like how so many people get jazzed when Fincher says he’s dipping his toe back into serial killers. It’s because it’s exciting to see people work on something that they’re passionate about.
Bright also knows when to ramp up the action when it’d appropriate. There are a handful of decent shootouts and car chases, but the real highlights are in the bonkers effects of the elf’s magic wand, especially when it really lets loose. One of the better moments from the film features Inferni, a bad-ass elf who’s the rightful owner of the wand, go on a murder spree as she tries to retrieve what’s hers. Bright, without question, features the most violent depiction of elves that’s ever existed. In this world, they’re like ruthless mobsters and the sort of individuals that Martin Scorsese would make a movie about. Another crazy set piece involves a car drive through a convenience store as guns go off in this extremely tight quarters all while the tiny space gets progressively blown to pieces.
What’s really important here is that once you strip away all of the fancy fantasy elements if the cop story still works and presents a compelling narrative. All of the racial commentary is a lot of fun and undeniably part of the film’s point, but the film needs to do more than just that. Thankfully, Bright’s gritty police narrative also delivers and makes this an even more well-rounded film.
The film does become a little too melodramatic for its own good at times and can sometimes get lost in how in love it is with its own world, but it still keeps this boat afloat. In the same sense, Bright does stall every now and then, but figures out when to inject the action scenes in to mix things up. The second half admittedly drags its feet more and feels like it has a little less to say, but its overall message still gets through.
Furthermore, Bright also falls prey to a pretty convenient conclusion where everything happens to work out for Jakoby with fairly little consequence. It’d be somewhat antithetical to the film’s message, but couldn’t Jakoby have died here? He could have even sacrificed himself for Ward and reinforce an even stronger ideal in the end where orcs are the sort of individuals who are capable of sacrificing themselves for humans. There are definitely other conclusions here that would still hit the same notes, yet amount to an ending with more weight, too.
Bright’s ending, unfortunately, kind of falls apart. The film gives into its more clichéd impulses and makes most of the decisions that you’d expect it to rather than it going out with any big surprises. Bright gets as close as possible to going too far in this direction, but it manages to correct itself when it’s important and still get by on its charm. It definitely feels like a whimper of an ending after the strong introduction to this unique world and its characters. This, unfortunately, has the film go out on a weaker note than it deserves when a few changes could have helped fix these things. However, the lasting impression here is that this is still a universe that it would be fun to return to, whether it’s for another installment of Ward and Jakoby’s adventures, or something else entirely.
As long as the elf kung fu is still on point and the orc metal is loud and angry.