‘I’m gonna finish my coffee and go kill the fairy,” Will Smith says at the outset of the new movie Bright, and you know you’re in for something a little different when the jaded LAPD officer he plays indeed heads out into the yard and starts swatting away with a broomstick at a squirrel-sized magical creature that is flitting around his bird feeder.
Bright, a fantasy-cop tale rated TV-MA that has all of the language, violence, and nudity associated with an R rating (or any Sunday night on HBO), is by turns funny, imaginative, and daring, with the kinds of visual effects associated with event movies. Picture what would happen if J. R. R. Tolkien were hired to do a follow-up to Training Day, or think of it as Harry Potter and the Corrupt Cops. Bright would have been better than most of the other offerings this season at the multiplex, but to see it you’ll have to just stay where you are: It’s on Netflix. Merry Christmas, and the Orville Redenbacher’s in the cupboard is better than the popcorn at the movie theater anyway.
With a reputed $90 million budget, Bright is among the most expensive features ever made directly for television, and it’s easy to guess why the increasingly formula-obsessed Hollywood studios might have been leery of it: It goes off in a startling direction. In the opening moments the writer Max Landis and director David Ayer tell the story, via graffiti, of a contemporary L.A. in which magical creatures have been integrated. Or, rather, segregated: Everyone hates the ugly, brutish Orcs, who live in the ghetto and are associated with crime, disorder, and their own genre of widely disliked music (speed metal), whereas the beautiful, blessed Elves conduct a sort of Neiman-Marcus existence. Ayer implicitly casts today’s multicultural, relatively peaceful L.A. as less dramatically engaging than one in which racist feuds and taunting are everywhere, especially in a nasty, self-serving police department.
Thanks to a diversity program, the financially struggling but honest cop Ward (Smith) is stuck being partners with the Orc Jakoby (Joel Edgerton, not that you can tell under the makeup). There is a bit of bad blood here given that Ward was hit with a shotgun blast while Jakoby was off getting a burrito. “I was getting a burrito for you!” Jakoby protests. Also, Jakoby may have helped the attacker (a fellow Orc, naturally) escape. Is Jakoby more loyal to the cops or to the Orc community? During routine patrols, when the two might happen upon, say, a crazed Orc randomly swinging a sword around in the street. Jakoby moans that it’s exhausting that everywhere he goes, Orcs are the bad guys. To which a Latino cop replies, “Don’t look at me! Mexicans still get sh** for the Alamo!”
Ayer, whose credits as a writer include the superb cop dramas Training Day, End of Watch, and Harsh Times (the latter two of which he also directed) but also the celluloid dumpster fire Suicide Squad, loves caustic and cynical characters, and the tart exchanges are the best parts of Bright, which actually gets less interesting when the shoot-outs and fights begin. Still, Ayer keeps you guessing about the parameters of the world he’s designed as the cops happen upon a magic wand of such extraordinary power that only a gifted individual — a “bright” — can safely direct its nearly limitless powers. The wand, which looks like a portable lightning bolt, turns out to be linked to an ancient feud involving Orcs and Elves and plays out with the requisite butt-kicking lady villain (Noomi Rapace) wreaking predictable havoc as she tears through L.A. looking for the magical object.
What’s best in Bright is not so much the main story, which drags a bit, but the wisecracks and details around the edges of it: Orcs who wish to be considered upstanding citizens are obliged to file down their sharp teeth, a step that earns them revulsion from ghetto orcs who deride anyone who does so as a “roundtooth.” When you’re Jakoby, you just can’t win: act respectable and lose the respect of your peers. I’m not sure the racial allegory adds up to anything much, but give Bright credit for being unlike anything else the movies are serving up these days.
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