The entertaining, kind-of-dumb, straight-to-video Netflix contemporary fantasy offering “Bright” is as paint-by-numbers as a Hallmark Christmas movie in its plot. I didn’t want to like it. But I’ve had a great deal of fun thinking about it, arguing with its points, and generally turning the thing over in my brain for the past few days.
In fact, “Bright” has proved a nice antidote for the Great December Disappointment of 2017, the pretentious, awful Star Wars offering, “The Last Jedi.” To redeem my embittered December, along came “Bright.”
The movie is helmed by “Suicide Squad” director David Ayer and written by scriptwriter Max Landis, the son of B-movie king John Landis. It is too violent and cuss-word-ridden to be suitable for kids, which is a shame because they might have been the best audience for its central conceit. In the film, a “Bright” is someone who can handle a magic wand. If you’re not a Bright and you touch a wand, you will literally explode.
More Elves and Fairies for Grownups
“Bright” takes place in a Tolkien-lite universe of elves, humans, magic users, and orcs, but with contemporary Los Angeles substituted for Middle Earth. Our heroes are human Daryl Ward (played by Will Smith) and Tolkien-rip-off orc Nick Jacoby (played by Joel Edgerton).
Jacoby is the first orc on the Los Angeles Police Department and he’s deeply hated by just about everyone, cop and criminal alike. The other cops loathe him for being an orc, and the gang-banging street orcs hate him because he’s trying to fit in with humans. This is heavy-handed allegory for, one supposes, pre-civil-rights-era American bigotry—and the movie does wallow in the implication.
What’s fun is that the film takes this prejudice even farther. It presents an apartheid mentality beyond anything experienced in America since slavery. Jacoby has to live with the fact that orcs historically chose to serve evil in the form of the Dark Lord, and his entire race has been deeply suspect ever since.
The prejudice goes both ways, too. Jacoby has to file down his tusks, for instance, because he is not “blooded” into the orc horde, and other orcs revile him for it. The casual bigotry against Jacoby is so visceral and unremitting that pretty soon we forget the allegory and just feel bad for this dude.
Smith’s Ward wants nothing to do with Jacoby at first. He’s been forced to partner with him for public relations, and he fears something will go wrong and endanger his retirement. Ward has gone from a hopeful rookie to a jaded, but effective beat cop who now wants only to get along and provide for his family. Stereotypical? Absolutely. But often in fantasy, stereotype is better than nuance to illustrate the weirdness of the world, which is the real star.
About Those Magical Elves
Then there are the real powerbrokers in America, the magic-wielding elves. They are extremely Nordic and entirely Euro-trashy. They live in a gated district one assumes must include Bel Air and Rodeo Drive. Boo, elves.
Leilah, a renegade Bright (played by the very Swedish Noomi Rapace) is trying to bring back the Dark Lord and presumably the everlasting reign of night, but Tikka, her apprentice and a Bright-in-training played by a dipsy-doodle Lucy Fry, steals Leilah’s wand and tries to escape to the magical version of East L.A.
When Ward and Jacoby decide to protect Tikka and get the wand to safety, they have to run a gauntlet of the human and Orcish underworld, the crooked police force, and Leilah’s cohorts, who go on a killing spree using some pretty cool elvish ninja skills.
We’ve seen this movie many times before, although it’s usually an alien instead of an orc in the buddy role. “Bright” hits every plot point we expect, down to the totally expected resolution. The gun and hand-to-hand fight scenes are generally great, but there are, unfortunately, a couple of long chase sequences lit so obscurely it is impossible to tell what’s going on.
World-Building Gone Very Right
Most of all, “Bright” gets the world-building right. Near the film’s start, Ward’s wife sends him outside to “kill the fairy.” This creature looks a bit like a rhesus monkey with wings. It is wantonly terrorizing the birds at their bird feeder, and generally making a nuisance of itself. Ward hesitates for a moment. Surely he’ll chase it off, and not actually kill it, right? You can’t do that in a movie these days, can you?
Then the annoying creature buzz bombs Ward. He knocks it out of the sky and—smashes it to death. His gangbanger-wannabe neighbors look on from their lawn chairs, tossing out comments and judgements from the peanut gallery.
The fairy swatting sets the rest of the movie up. We feel the other cops’ prejudice toward Jacoby as real and very dangerous. The fairy smash is a droll, kinda gross, horrific, and totally unexpected moment. Not unexpected because it doesn’t fit the story. It’s just delightfully wrong in a political sense. And, boy, do the woke critics hate it.
This beat in the film is where the critics with a leftist political ax to grind show their colors. And the film goads them with even more wrongness. For instance, most of the prejudice expressed toward Jacoby comes from a multi-culti cast of blacks, Asians, and Latinos. Seems it takes everyone to make a hateful village.
Sometimes, Simple Is Good
I found out to my disappointment that “Bright” cost millions more to make than it should have. Some Netflix development dupe paid $3 million for a script any Hallmark scriptwriter could have turned out for $40,000 or $50,000, for instance. It is receiving the same kind of patronizing reviews as another overpriced Smith project, “After Earth.”
This was the 2013 science fiction epic Smith made with his son. (One might suspect from the jobs he picks that Smith is something of a sci-fi nerd). When my own son was nine, he made me see “After Earth” with him in the theater. I enjoyed “After Earth,” but I’m a sci-fi kind of guy. I expected my son to pan it as badly as the critics had.
Instead, he loved it. He responded to the simple story structure. The stereotypical father-son relationship felt archetypical to him. The action kept his attention, and the world seemed logical, real, and a little bit frightening, at least for a kid. Or a kid at heart.
So does “Bright.”