When you look at the ingredients of Bright, a big budget action/fantasy flick from director David Ayer (Suicide Squad, Fury) and writer Max Landis (Chronicle) which stars Will Smith, Joel Edgerton, and Noomi Rapace, you’d expect it to be playing in your local multiplex during the warmer months. But these are different times, and Bright, which refreshingly isn’t based on some existing piece of IP, feels like a little more of a risk, even if its concept is tailor-made for genre fans raised on a steady diet of the golden age of action movies, the Lord of the Rings saga, and hours lost on World of Warcraft.
The basics of Bright are conventional enough. Will Smith is Ward, a veteran LAPD cop just a few years from retirement who’s been paired with a rookie partner, Nick Jacoby (Joel Edgerton). Nick is a “diversity hire” and faces considerable discrimination from other members of the force. During a particularly busy night out on patrol, the pair find themselves protecting a young girl (Lucy Fry), who has something that the bad guys (including Noomi Rapace) want. The difference? Nick is an Orc, the young girl is an Elf, and the thing the villains are hunting down is nothing less than an honest-to-goodness magic wand. While Will Smith isn’t exactly stretching out of his comfort zone with a movie like this, he’s a steadying, recognizable presence in a world that is only just a little bit sideways from our own. Considering that his co-star is completely unrecognizable under Orc makeup, it’s good to have a seasoned action star hitting some familiar beats.
Yes, the world of Bright is one where Elves, Orcs, Faeries, and magic exist. Think of it this way: imagine if all your favorite Dungeons & Dragons or Warcraft campaigns didn’t take place in some alternate dimension, but instead right here in our world, just a few thousand years in the past. Since then, society has developed mostly as we’ve come to expect, but with these non-human races and cultures living right alongside us.
The movie gets most of the worldbuilding out of the way in the opening credits in clever fashion. As we get a brief tour around this alternate version of Los Angeles, the graffiti tells us much of the world’s backstory, and it’s a fine way to introduce an urban sprawl where the otherwise fantastic has become completely mundane. This sets the tone for the rest of the film, where fantasy races are utterly commonplace, and even magic, while a rarity, is something that has its own federal law enforcement branch (represented by a deadpan Edgar Ramirez looking sharp in Elf makeup).
To its credit, Bright never for a moment loses sight of the importance of keeping its fantasy grounded. It benefits from some tight direction by David Ayer, who presents the film like an entirely straightforward cop movie, albeit one where the streets of LA are also crawling with gangs of Orcs. There are the expected echoes of Alien Nation, Lethal Weapon, and Training Day, and we get the requisite action sequence in a subsequently detonated gas station, as well as the old reliable “cops hunt a suspect in a nightclub full of loud music and spiky haired punks.” This street level Los Angeles feel and commitment to late ‘80s early ‘90s action movie conventions probably would have done his overblown and overcooked Suicide Squad a world of good.
Still, it’s a pretty thin story, full of familiar action movie beats and a murky, fantasy movie prophecy, not helped by a forgettable (despite Noomi Rapace’s eerie presence) villain. The vast majority of the movie’s runtime takes place over one particularly bad night for its characters, which gives it an urgent, almost real-time feel, but also makes much of the rapid fire violence a little tiresome. It builds to a surprisingly claustrophobic climax (I mean that in the nicest possible way, as I could envision a world where we had a sky portal studio noted in), and a predictable one, at that. If this movie was trying to say anything deeper about race or class relations with its Orcs and Elves, that all remained, at best, underdeveloped, or perhaps best not thought about at all in this context.
It seems like we’re short on this kind of non-franchise genre fare these days, let alone ones willing to take a chance with an R-rating. Bright never really lives up to the full potential of its high-concept, but it’s still a fun B-movie diversion that will play well enough during any Saturday afternoon Netflix session.