Back in the 1980s, when the buddy-cop thriller was all the rage, Alien Nation took the genre’s staples and threw a bit of sci-fi into the mix. In a future Los Angeles where extraterrestrials live among humans, an Earth-born cop (James Caan) is reluctantly partnered with an alien law enforcer (Mandy Potenkin); as they solve a case involving murder and narcotics, their antipathy eventually gives way to friendship and respect. It was familiar stuff, even back then, but the sci-fi angle gave it a certain freshness, not to mention a neat (if less than subtle) allegory for racial intolerance and hatred.
Nearly 30 years later, along comes Bright – an LA-set thriller that’s essentially Alien Nation all over again, except with the sci-fi replaced with a smattering of Tolkien-esque fantasy. Not that there’s anything wrong with borrowing old ideas, necessarily: Neill Blomkamp’s District 9 had the premise of shunned aliens living in ghettos among humans, yet it brought a texture and style all its own.
All of which bring us to Bright. Directed by David Ayer, who rewrote a script by Max Landis (Chronicle, American Ultra), Bright has all the grit and chaos of Ayer’s earlier LA-set movies, including Training Day (which he wrote and Antoine Fuqua directed) or the superb End Of Watch (where he was director as well as scribe). Netflix, keen to edge towards the blockbuster end of the entertainment business, have stumped up a reported $90 million or so on this genre mash-up – and the streaming giant evidently has plans to turn the thing into a franchise, like Lethal Weapon with wizards.
It all sounds good on paper. Will Smith stars as Daryl Ward, a surly cop who thoroughly resents being paired with Nick Jakoby (Joel Edgerton, under a mountain of blue makeup)- a new recruit who also happens to be the LAPD’s first orc with a badge. The backstory, largely told in an opening montage and accompanying jabs of dialogue, is that the fantastical wars told in the works of Tolkien weren’t the stuff of imagination, but part of our history. As a result, elves are now stand-ins for Earth’s richest one percent – they all wear fancy clothes, live in LA’s best districts, and some have fancy jobs in the FBI – while orcs form a hated underclass crammed into ghettos.
Jakoby, then, is something of a trailblazer, and quietly absorbs the racial abuse and condescension of his human colleagues. Ward’s particularly frosty towards his orc partner, partly because he blames Jakoby for an incident involving a hoodlum with a shotgun, but largely because humans just hate orcs. One of Bright’s big, early problems is that it isn’t all that interested in the racial tension side of things – it’s far more keen to get into a story involving a magic wand, some corrupt cops and a dark elf named Leilah (Noomi Rapace), who wants the wand in order to revive some kind of ancient evil. Ward and Jakoby are caught in the crossfire, and along with a young elf named Tikka (Lucy Fry), struggle to keep the wand away from the brights – the film’s word for people powerful enough to harness the macguffin’s magic.
When he’s on form, Ayer’s capable of making excellent films: End Of Watch was an efficient, superbly-staged exercise in sustained tension, where the threat of violence lurked behind every door. Tank drama Fury was a similarly lean and thunderously aggressive war thriller. Sometimes, though, Ayer’s taste for the loud and extreme gets the better of him: see also the grotesque action-murder-mystery Sabotage (an ill-advised vehicle for Arnold Schwarzenegger) or the startlingly messy comic book flick, Suicide Squad. In the case of Bright, the world-building quickly descends into a dark and noisy sludge where everything’s competing for our attention. Guns are constantly going off, threats and insults are shrieked at volumes guaranteed to shred speakers. It’s hard work, and we haven’t even got to the characters yet.
Will Smith became a star through his smiling, easy-going charisma, so it’s quite something to encounter a cop as unpleasant as Daryl Ward. Put it this way: one of his earliest scenes sees him beat a tiny, humanoid ‘fairy’ to death with a broom, before yelling at his neighbours, “Fairy lives don’t matter today.” Cut to a close-up of the fairy’s broken body on the floor, oozing blood. Whether you think that sounds funny or faintly disturbing will probably define how you’ll get on with the film as a whole.
Edgerton fares better, yet even he struggles to transmit much humanity through an overwrought facial appliance that looks somehow less convincing than the one Mandy Potenkin wore in Alien Nation. Indeed, for a film with such a handsome budget, Bright looks noticeably ramshackle in places – Netflix may want to beat Hollywood at its own game with this edgy and violent thriller, but its production values barely exceed a typical episode of, say, a Marvel TV show.
Worse, Bright is tiresomely fascinated with the least interesting aspects of its universe and slapdash with the finer details. Ayer labours over the seen-it-all-before ‘survive the night’ plot, but throws out other points with a shrug. A solitary establishing shot presents us with a dragon, circling Los Angeles’ hazy sky in the far distance. This poses all kinds of questions and odd possibilities: what does it eat? Aren’t the city’s residents worried by it? Where does an LA dragon go to the loo?
Instead, Bright fixates on a dull cycle of bloody shoot-outs, chases and stand-offs – and after a while, even the locations become predictable if you’ve seen enough cop thrillers. The whole film takes place in various old warehouses, alleyways and strip joints, as Ward and Jakoby are pursued from place to place by Noomi Rapace’s monosyllabic elvish villain. At two hours, Bright feels inordinately long – and incredibly, there’s a jaw-dropping scene where the central characters spend several agonising minutes describing all the events we’ve just sat through.
Netflix clearly has confidence in its latest creation – at the time of writing, a sequel’s just been announced – and, in theory, the elements are all there. But even with a proven writer-director pairing, not to mention some solid actors, nothing about Bright really works. The budget’s big, the concept’s high, but the magic is sorely missing.
Bright is out on Netflix now.