23rd Dec2017

‘Bright’ Review (Netflix Original)

by Rupert Harvey

Stars: Will Smith, Joel Edgerton, Noomi Rapace, Edgar Ramirez, Lucy Fry | Written by Max Landis | Directed by David Ayer

Bright-uk-poster

Max Landis (Chronicle, Victor Frankenstein) is now as synonymous with writing pop genre mashups as director David Ayer (Harsh Times, End of Watch) is with brutal LA-based cops ‘n’ robbers pictures. Bright offers a combo that has the air of a panicked producer meeting about it – ‘How about… Lord of the Rings meets Training Day!?’ – but ultimately it serves neither genre very well. Eschewing the world-building politics of Tolkien in favour of the bridge-building racial politics of today’s America, this is allegory drawn in thick crayon, and any meaningful social commentary is basically forgotten by the end.

The setting is a parallel-universe Los Angeles, where humans live tensely alongside downtrodden, ghettoised orcs and privileged, self-segregated elves. There are also mischievous fairies and (in a neat visual joke) the odd centaur roaming about. Will Smith plays Daryl Ward, a veteran human cop who’s reluctantly teamed with Joel Edgerton’s Nick Jacoby, the city’s first orc officer. Having battled their way out of their own, racist police station, the partners face the mean streets, where they come across a group of extremists known as the Shield of Light, who claim that a mysterious “Dark Lord” will be returning soon. And that’s not good news. Fate throws Ward and Jacoby together with Tikka (Lucy Fry, in one of a handful of thankless female roles). She’s a Bright, meaning she can wield a magic wand.

The ruthless elf Leilah (Noomi Rapace) wants the wand so she can gain ultimate power, or something. The middle section of the movie is a fairly humdrum and repetitive chase sequence, as the unlikely heroes are pursued by Leilah’s hit squad, merciless gangsters, and a stony-faced federal agent called Kandomere (an inert Edgar Ramirez). Naturally, the stage is set for a boring CGI showdown, although there are some twists along the way. Predictable twists, sadly. At one point, a certain key character is revealed to have a special ability, and it’s something I genuinely assumed was already common knowledge.

Ex-military Ayer has always been ostensibly apolitical, preferring to focus on the roaring masculinity at the frontline of soldiers fighting other people’s battles. Here, the losing battle for Ayer is between grit and whimsy, and it’s an ugly ruckus of Helm’s Deep proportions. His partner in crime is Landis. Alarmingly, Landis’s directorial debut is set to be a remake of his father’s film, An American Werewolf in London – a movie which effectively set the mould for horror-comedy calibration thereon. After the tonal awkwardness of American Ultra, I gave Landis the benefit of the doubt, but now I’m not so sure. Is he simply throwing genres together in lieu of real invention? Is he on a crusade to prove that just because something hasn’t been done before then it has inherent value?

Except, of course, it kinda has been done before, in the ‘80s and ‘90s with Alien Nation. In that franchise, it should be noted, there was a clear starting point for the immigration and integration of the alien outsiders. In Landis’s world, the assumption is that these races have always lived side-by-side, and this exposes the lack of depth in the world-building: LA seems fundamentally identical to our own world, complete with recognisable historical references. It might have been interesting to learn of the process of integration – a little more about how the different races have survived each other’s company – if only Landis and Ayer hadn’t been so impatient to move onto bigger, louder alleyway shootouts and flashy CG magic effects.

The latter is a particular problem for Ayer, who is absolutely at home with the gritty streets, but all at sea with the fantasy lore. It is entirely possible to draw convincing performances from actors spouting otherworldly dialogue – Peter Jackson and Duncan Jones did a pretty good job of it – but the last half-hour of Bright looks like it was directed by someone else entirely. Ayer’s inability to shoot sensitivity also becomes a greater problem as the film wears on and emotions beyond mere male frustration and rage emerge.

But the fault begins with the script. Thoughtfully constructed fantasy universes can be wonderfully transporting and richly allegorical. The problem is, the rules of Landis’s world are either paper thin or infuriatingly inconsistent. Stuffed with neat visual ideas, it’s as if the filmmaking duo were more interested in constructing moments of “Awesome!” than moments of genuine awe.

Stylistically and tonally, the film treads similar ground to Suicide Squad. Like that movie, it’s essentially a hyper-masculine wish-fulfilment fantasy with grown-up themes shot through a juvenile lens. Thankfully, it’s not quite the editorial cataclysm that was the former film, owing to a mostly clean, linear narrative. But we’re still careering toward a cacophony of listless light and sound, increasingly yelled over by David Sardy’s desperately epic yet entirely forgettable score.

On the performance front, most of our time is spent with the two mismatches buddies. Smith is dangerously close to becoming a parody of his former self, memories of his once fresh, cocky charisma undermining his efforts to f-bomb his way to streetwise toughness. But there is still a good sliver of charm there, and with Edgerton – who proves once again to be one of the most versatile character actors of his generation – there is a clear chemistry which significantly boosts the film’s buddy cop credentials.

But damn, Bright is a drag. How can such a splendidly daft idea be so devoid of satire? Where’s the lightness of touch? Think of how Guillermo Del Toro, in his Hellboy films, so skilfully balanced brutality and whimsy; intimacy and universe-creation. Po-faced and bro-focused, Bright is too self-serious to get away with being labelled fluff, and too absurd and half-baked to pass as a dramatic effort. It’s basically another DC movie, then, and it barely clears the low bar set by Ayer himself last year.

Bright is available on Netflix now.

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