Will Smith's 'Bright,' Netflix's attempt at a blockbuster, goes for woke - and falls flat
How does our hometown hero fare?
High-fantasy creatures and low-down dirty cops square off in Netflix's pricey, dicey Bright, a benchmark production scuttled by the tone-deaf missteps of two distinct traditions.
Directed by Suicide Squad's David Ayer, written by Max Landis (Chronicle), and shepherded by Will Smith and Joel Edgerton — neither one a stranger to awards chatter or blockbusters — the hybridized thriller is stacked with top-tier talent and cinematic cred that the studio-disrupting streaming service paid dearly to secure. With its $90 million-plus budget, it is Netflix's most expensive original movie, and a sequel has already been green-lighted ahead of its Dec. 22 debut.
With this moneyed long-view strategy, Netflix, which notoriously does not release its viewership data, is rendering audience reactions to its late-model tent pole irrelevant before they're even delivered. When digested alone, the first installment of this willed-into-existence franchise offers some legitimate excitement, but it leans too heavily on exhausted tropes native to both its genres to secure attention in either direction.
Few active filmmakers are more fluent in the vernacular of the SoCal police saga than Ayer, who wrote the screenplays for Training Day, Dark Blue, and S.W.A.T. and who has directed some examples of the style, including the excellent End of Watch. Mix the heartfelt partners-are-brothers bond at the core of that 2012 drama with the short-lived '80s sci-fi procedural Alien Nation and an entry-level dusting of Dungeons & Dragons and you'll end up with something like Bright.
Set in an alternative universe in which Tolkienesque races — brutish orcs, noble elves, mystical mages — commingle with typical humans on the Los Angeles streets, the movie opens with a literal bang, as Ward (Smith), your classic world-weary patrolman a few years away from earning his pension, absorbs a surprise shotgun blast from an orcish thug. He survives the attack, but it spells hell for his put-upon partner, Jakoby (Edgerton), the first orc to join the LAPD as the result of a bureau-wide diversity initiative. Shunned by his own clan as a traitor and ostracized by the men who should have his back, Jakoby has no one and fits in nowhere — but he's a Good Cop and holds tightly to the belief that that's all that should matter.
In Bright's mythology, orcs become an untouchable caste per a vaguely drawn historical war that wedged them beneath the heels of the more advanced races, elite-level elves and caught-in-the-middle humans included. Riddled with on-the-nose imagery that recalls '90s-era hood films and real-life injustices like the Rodney King beating, Landis' script is laughably unsubtle in its attempts at racial allegory. We can buy that orcs are a stand-in for the oppressed Latino and African American communities preyed upon by law enforcement, but the fantasy overlay is stretched so far that it can't help but come off as an excuse to present tired stereotypes of inner-city minorities. There's a sense that Landis is going for woke, but it's executed too lazily to make any impact.
The pace picks up once Ward and Jakoby are unwittingly embroiled in a fight for an all-powerful magic wand ("a nuclear weapon that grants wishes!") lusted after by multiple gangs, a gaggle of corrupt officers, and Noomi Rapace's vastly entertaining Leilah, a destructive elf with over-the-top combat skills straight out of a PlayStation game. Ayer's mastery of old-school, meat-and-potatoes action is Bright's strongest selling point; its most egregious shortcoming is the lack of honest chemistry between its two stars — their odd-couple dynamic seems like a rich opportunity for character development, but it's pockmarked by ill-timed humor and insincere emotion. This is not a return to leading-man form for homegrown megastar Smith, who has been taking steady box office Ls these last few years, nor is it a platform for the versatile Aussie Edgerton to expand his imprint. But thanks to Netflix's bullish ideology, we'll be getting way more Bright, whether we want it or not.