If you watched filmmaker David Ayer’s Suicide Squad and thought to yourself, “Man, there was too much nuance, cohesion, and subtlety in this movie for me,” then perhaps you will be one of the few people in the world to actually enjoy Bright, the “urban fairy tale” Ayer has premiering on Netflix today.
It’s like Ayer took every element of Suicide Squad and leaned into it more—more stupidly masculine characters, more corrupt police officers and government officials, more clumsily rendered racial and social dynamics, more mostly superfluous female villains, more shoot-outs, more groan-worthy dialogue, more chase scenes, more, more, more.
Did you want Will Smith saying “Fairy lives don’t matter today” before smashing a glittery purple sprite to death with a broom? Bright has that! Did you want an “Elven District” where everybody is just “running the world and shopping,” whereas their ancestral enemies, the Orcs, hang out on couches outside, go to strip clubs, wear athletic jerseys, and operate in “clan”-like gangs—almost like the Elves are implied to be white people, and the Orcs are black people? Bright has that! Do most of the cops have weirdly aggressive, tongue-in-cheek mustaches, straight out of a cheesy ’80s movie? Bright has that! Does the female villain only get like three lines? Bright has that! Is Édgar Ramírez stuck wearing a blue wig and white contacts to play an elf officer in “the magic Feds”? You know the answer to that is yes! You know Bright has that! You know I can’t keep listing things because this is wearing me out!
The “What in the actual fuck?” barrage of Bright is constant, and the frustrating thing is that this idea itself isn’t terrible, even though it comes from noted jackass Max Landis. As genres, fantasy and sci-fi have always explored real-world themes through metaphor and allegory, and the core concept of Bright could have been an interesting exploration for a miniseries, TV show, or any format with more than two hours to consider a scenario in which humans, elves, and orcs engaged in warfare for hundreds of years and who now live uneasily alongside each other in a modern world where the use of magic is banned.
But with only a couple of hours to build histories for the elves and the orcs, to explore their current communities, and to display the tensions between orcs and elves, humans and elves, and humans and orcs, Ayer and Landis can’t get it done. They’re relying on broad ideas with stereotypical executions, and their attempts to be insightful about how structures of control pay lip service to diversity while actively undermining it, how cultural traditions are discouraged by homogeneous majorities, and how individual identities become tainted or corrupted by the promise of inclusion from that majority never really work out.
So you have Joel Edgerton stuck talking around a set of goofy-looking lower fangs, and Ramirez trying to look imposing and regal in that flat-ironed blue wig, and Will Smith doing a mash-up of his Deadshot performance from Suicide Squad with more than a little Denzel from Training Day peppered in. Oh, and Noomi Rapace is also there, in a beautifully embroidered suit that is more interesting than anything about her “terrorist” character.
Bright focuses on a present-day Los Angeles in which veteran street cop Officer Ward (Smith) is paired with the first orc to serve in the LAPD, Officer Jakoby (Edgerton). Their partnership is not only affected by prevailing anti-orc sentiment in the LAPD, but also concerns from Ward’s family (“Why do you have to be a police man? Everybody hates police men,” asks his daughter) and disdain from the orc community itself, who are disgusted by Jakoby’s choice to serve.
Amid all those tensions, a major threat arises: A group of renegade elves are attempting to bring back the Dark Lord, their leader from thousands of years ago, who thought elves were the rightful dominant race. Yet only certain creatures, or “Brights,” are able to wield magic without being destroyed by its power, and an attempt to raise the Dark Lord means immense bloodshed and chaos. As Ward and Jakoby get pulled into a conflict that could end the whole world as they know it, they have to learn to trust each other in a society that treats clannism as primary and interspecies cooperation as repellent.
Smith has always been good at chewing up lines and spitting them out with gusto, no matter their quality, but even he is saddled with some really questionable dialogue: “Don’t worry about me, just Crip Walk your asses back to the barbecue,” he snarks at nosy neighbors; “I’m about dope, money, and guns,” he proclaims to Jakoby about his job; “Your fat Shrek-looking ass … drive the fuck home to Fiona,” he says when insulting an orc. Those are all kind of funny, I guess, but the movie’s humor mostly comes from either racism or indignation: “Do orcs have mad hops? How many orcs are ballers? It’s not racism, it’s physics,” says a corrupt detective. “You’re gonna drone him?” a cult member deadpans about a human response to the Dark Lord. And when Jakoby guesses that he and Ward are in a prophecy, Ward’s response is a disbelieving “We’re in a stolen Toyota Corolla.”
That’s pretty much how this script is: chunks of exposition from Ramírez’s character or other magical beings, and then occasional standoffish exchanges between Ward and Jakoby, and repetitive racism from the other cops. Oh, and there’s lots of talk about what it takes to be a man and the familial legacies of Ward as a father vs. Jakoby as a son, because you can always count on Ayer to harp on the same themes about masculinity as often as possible.
But again—why not give this idea room to breathe in a noncinematic format? Why not incorporate production design or art direction that is at least somewhat interested in showing how unique the orcs and the elves are, instead of presenting them as clearly humans in makeup? Bright uses barely developed magical elements to tell a barely developed story about racism and prejudice in America. On both fronts, it fails.