Note: I would be remiss if I attempted to discuss the film Bright without also addressing the current issues surrounding its writer Max Landis. The screenwriter, known for 2012’s Chronicle and as the offspring of the much more talented John Landis, has been accused by multiple women of sexual assault and/or harassment on Twitter over the last few days. This should go without saying but just to be clear, all of us here at Filmsmiths HQ are appalled by these accusations and condemn Landis’ actions, fully and unequivocally. We also wish to say that we believe these women, and offer our full encouragement and support to them and other victims out there. More information on this situation can be found courtesy of The Daily Beast.
Bright, a Netflix-produced film starring Will Smith and Joel Edgerton, is a cop drama set in a modern fantasy world run by the upperclass elves, suffered in by the lower class Orcs, and in the middle humans. The story follows the first-ever Orc police officer, a diversity hire named Nick Jakoby (Edgerton), and his jaded veteran partner Daryl Ward (Smith) as they navigate a fantastical yet gritty Los Angeles boiling over with racial tension. The less-than-friendly cop duo find themselves teaming up with an evil-elf-turned-good named Tikka (Lucy Fry) to escape and defeat another evil elf, Leilah (Noomi Rapace), as she tries to restore a thousands-year old Dark Lord to his former power. Along the way they deal with corrupt LAPD officers played by Ike Barinholtz and Margaret Cho, Orcish thugs, and the most horrifyingly stereotypical Latino gangsters you’ve ever seen.
The movie starts out on a high note, the opening credits play over scenes of LA tagged in graffiti that cleverly conveys the setting: a society of different races living in segregation stemming from a war that rampaged thousands of years ago. The high-end uptown neighborhoods are marked as ‘Elves Only’, the ghettos covered in spray paint of the Orcish clans, and humans playing the peacekeepers (in this case, the LAPD). This opening had me tagged from the outset, the scenic composition was visually interesting, the brightly-colored graffiti juxtaposed against the gritty, grey LA backdrop, and the clever way of establishing the setting all came together to make for a great opening sequence. Unfortunately, it was kind of downhill from there.
Bright is one of those films that has an original, interesting idea that could make for a great film, but then fails in its execution. The dialogue is clunky at its best and cringey at its worst, an early scene between Ward and his wife has the f-word wedged in so many times they sound like a teenager trying to fit in with the older kids because they think swearing a lot makes them cool and mature. The painfully awkward scene continues with Ward killing a pesky fairy, a moment which sees an LAPD officer uttering the line “Fairy lives don’t matter today!” before delivering a killing blow. You know, like how there’s tension between the police force and Black Lives Matter because of police brutality? GET IT??
Don’t worry, if that ever-so-subtle reference snuck past you the rest of the film is littered with similar notions. The heavy-handedness of this movie’s message about racial tension in American cannot be overstated. The message is an important one, especially in today’s political and social climate: there is a problem with racial tension, systematic racism that favors certain people over others, and a tradition of discrimination that people are born into. Unfortunately, much like the overall premise of the film, a noble message is undone by failed delivery. Landis and Ayer beat you over the head with their allegory to real-world racial strife while at the same time playing up the same stereotypes that cause some of that strife. The only African-Americans in the film besides Will Smith are stereotypical gangsters who lounge out on the lawn blasting rap music and drinking 40s in the middle of the day. The Latino characters? Yeah they’re all carbon-copy Mexican gangster tropes with face tattoos and over-the-top accents. There is one Hispanic character that isn’t in that mold, a police officer named Rodriguez (Jay Hernandez) whose entire backstory is “a cop with more kids than he can afford”. If you’re worried that characters are only stereotyped based on race, don’t fret: all of the police officers are racist murderers. So that’s cool I guess.
Not only do Landis and Ayer undermine their message with gross overuse of stereotypes, they also make the mistake of showing the audience a societal problem without making any sort of attempt to address potential solutions or progress. The film doesn’t attempt to open a dialogue or actually discuss these issues, it simply screams at you “Hey look a problem!” and then pats itself on the back for so socially conscious.
Okay, so let’s look past the problematic characters and themes of the film and at the story and the action. Despite the issues already discussed, I liked the film more than I expected to. I’m a sucker for fantasy and for cop dramas, so Bright was right up my alley from that perspective. The story of good guys fighting to stop a bad guy from unleashing an even bigger bad guy isn’t exactly original, but the film’s approach to magic and other traditional fantasy elements kept it interesting. The action sequences were entertaining, the tension was palpable when it needed to be, and the makeup/effects were extremely well done. Will Smith’s performance was decent but lazy, while Joel Edgerton and Lucy Fry stole the show. Despite being covered in prosthetics Edgerton manages to give a subtle but strong performance as the Orc cop who is shunned by Elves and Humans for his race and labelled a traitor by other Orcs, Edgerton’s performance makes Nick Jakoby literally the only character you even remotely care about. Fry’s role as the borderline manic elf that’s petrified of retribution from her former masters is much less subtle but still convincing, her fear single-handedly builds up Leilah’s threat.
Overall, Bright was an okay movie that is perfectly entertaining as long as you don’t think too much about it. In the hands a much more skilled and nuanced writer/director, Bright could have been a hugely important film with its commentary on tensions in today’s America. With a more lighthearted and less faux-esoteric filmmaker it could have an extremely fun and compelling low fantasy cop drama. Instead, Bright suffers from trying to be both while ending up as neither. Netflix has already penned a deal with Will Smith for the sequel, though it’s currently unknown whether Landis and/or Ayer will be involved. Hopefully not.
Final Score: 4/10