Synopsis: Set in a world where fantasy creatures live side by side with humans. A human cop is forced to work with an Orc to find a weapon everyone is prepared to kill for. (From IMDb)
Review: Lord of the Rings meets Bad Boys meets Die Hard is the best way to describe this film. Will Smith (Daryl Ward) plays a LA cop counting down the next five years until he can retire. Joel Edgerton (Nick Jakoby) portrays the first Orc, yes orc, to become a cop under the LAPD diversity program. For some reason Jakoby ends up working with Ward, a situation neither of them appreciate. Over the course of a few days they encounter a cursed Elven weapon, an Orc gang, and fellow officers with a cliched agenda. Can Ward and Jakoby put aside their shallow differences and come together in time to save the world from apocalyptic destruction? Maybe.
Let me begin with: I love the concept of this film. Elves, Orcs, Fairies, and Humans having to fight for dominance in a grungier version of Los Angeles? This is two of my favorite genres smashed together into a glorious mess. Max Landis (the screenwriter) crafted one of the better urban fantasy film ideas in recent years. The film opens with Jakoby and Ward hitting a rut in their co-working relationship. Before they can iron out the kinks, a new threat arrives: Leilah (a criminally underused Noomi Rapace), a psychopathic elf sworn into service to the cultic Dark Lord. Leilah is seeking Tikka (Lucy Fry), a young trainee elf who stole her magic wand, which radiates destructive energy. When Ward and Jakoby put Tikka under their protection, they embark on a game of cat-and-mouse. The happy trio have to evade corrupt cops, Leilah and her ruthless cronies, a Latino street gang, and superfluous operatives of a Federal Magic Task Force.
Unfortunately, Landis excelled at the idea and struggled with the execution. Science fantasy movies tend to focus more on fantasy than science; which is fine, it is fun to watch a slightly wackier version of real life. However, Bright masquerades as a science fantasy film but is really a thinly veiled social commentary dramedy. Most of the narrative focuses on the superficial differences between Ward and Jakoby. All the conflict begins when Jakoby fumbles an arrest and puts Ward in the hospital for weeks. Ward, understandably, resents Jakoby. Like his colleagues, Ward deeply distrusts Jakoby and suspects him of having divided loyalties. Although the majority of the LA police force want Jakoby expelled, Ward, for an unexplored reason, does his best to cooperate with his new partner, shooting incident notwithstanding.
While the fantasy setting presented an interesting way to examine cultural differences, the racial undertones were overly stereotypical to the point of verging on caricature. Snooty elves rule the upper echelons of society and lord their wealth and status over less deserving beings. The orcs cultivate a thuggish motorcycle gang aesthetic and sneer at the ‘unblooded’, a badly explained coming of age ritual that appears to be a cross between a bar mitzvah and a prison brawl. The broader fantasy setting is, sadly, unexplored. Hints of a wider mythology peek through in the form of a centaur traffic warden and the silhouette of a solitary dragon floating above the LA skyline. Due to the weak world building and over reliance on stereotypes, the narrative’s attempts to tackle racism and police brutality through allegory fall short. While the allegory is conventional at best, the execution comes off as misguided, dubious, and incredibly sanctimonious.
The narrative also suffers from a similar case of under development. Magic users, the ubiquitous ‘brights’, are regulated by federal law and magic wands rank up there with armed nuclear weapons. Why magic requires federal regulation never comes up, even though how that happened would make a more compelling story. When Jakoby and Ward stumble upon a glowing wand, they embark on an exhausting gritty chase sequence. In between frantic scrambling across LA and trash talking each other, they must outwit one dimensional Latino gangsters, an orcish death cult, and a relentlessly psychopathic band of macabre ninja elves. While hints of solid action emerge momentarily between the pandemonium, the narrative is dragged down by stilted dialogue.
Smith and Edgerton do their best to infuse some magic into their ill-defined characters, but charm only goes so far. Sadly, the supporting cast might as well be mimes. That might have actually improved the film since most of the dialogue actually detracts from the narrative. Fry as Tikka has no distinguishable character traits or dialogue. Her main “feature” is looking scared and quivering in the corner. Tikka’s connection with Ward and Jacoby comes across as painfully contrived and emotionally hollow. Rapace, as the antagonistic Leilah, is given even less to work with. Her whole role consists of evil expressions and killing people in increasingly inventive methods; which is a shame since Rapace plays morally ambiguous characters exceedingly well. Yet the narrative would not have suffered if Leilah never appeared. Ike Barinholtz and Jay Hernandez appear in briefly unmemorable supporting roles. Édgar Ramírez and Happy Anderson popup as two random FBI Magic Unit agents who solely exist to drive the plot forward and are given nothing to do. They literally spend the entire time driving around in a fancy car, mumbling into walkie talkies, and looking concerned.
To David Ayer’s credit, the narrative clips along at a steady pace; which helps camouflage the numerous illogical plot twists and half-formed ideas. Ayer and Roman Vasyanov, the cinematographer, create some striking visuals that illuminate this dystopian version of LA in heavy shadows and dusky colors. I got the impression that Ayer and Vasyanov attempted to combine the aesthetic of a gritty cop movie with Game of Thrones, but struggled to weave the two together. Overall, Bright deserves some praise for sheer originality and the audacity to combine two popular genres into one hallucinogenic kaleidoscopic of a narrative. However, for a fantasy movie, the narrative lacked the “magic” factor. The move ends without answering any questions, including where did magic come from, why does it need regulation, how does magic work, and why are there no elvish police officers? A sequel has already gotten the greenlight, though without screenwriter Max Landis. Hopefully the next iteration will answer some of the lingering questions and give the actors more believable dialogue.