Netflix has proven that, in terms of content, it is able to stand toe to toe with the giants of traditional cable and Hollywood. It proves this not only by matching quality, and taking chances on projects, but as shown in Bright by also being able to deliver typically shallow star vehicles.
The film follows LAPD cops Daryl Ward (Will Smith) and Nick Jakoby (Joel Edgerton) who come across a magic wand (in this world, a nuclear bomb that grants wishes), and must fend off gangs, other cops, and elven terrorists. I love the premise and concept, which borrows heavily from the best urban fantasy aspects of games like Shadowrun; unfortunately this film doesn’t carry them forward nearly enough.
It has a lot of things going for it, director David Ayer was just as responsible for End of Watch (which was great) as he was Suicide Squad (garbage) — and the makeup design is pretty good. Where the film lacks the energy and commitment to push it beyond average, however, is in the performances and worldbuilding.
Bright is too long, and much of that time is eaten up by Smith giving a decidedly tired and overripe performance as essentially the same character he plays in every movie, all while making confident, capable, pop culture references. While Edgerton does a slightly better job as rookie orc cop Nick, leaning into the awkwardness of his predicament of being almost universally disliked and distrusted, the two leads have zero chemistry. It’s hard to put my finger exactly on why this is, and I understand at least for the first two acts it’s supposed to be intentional, but the banter never really lands, even after they’ve built up their relationship.
There’s still charm to it, and it’s fun and interesting to watch. Why I’m being so hard on it is because it doesn’t seem concerned with even attempting to reach its potential, both as a film, and as the first showing of a more interesting world. The writer, Max Landis, is good at big picture ideas, and above average at quippy dialogue, but there are many opportunities wasted.
It’s cool that other races are mentioned, but the world they’ve built for them to coexist in just isn’t different enough from our own to offer real depth. The mythology that is introduced, that goes as far back as 2,000 years, has had a profound impact on the motivations of characters, but not on the actual world. L.A. is still L.A., apparently inter-human racism still exists (a Latino sheriff mentions his people still getting shit for the Alamo), and the film Shrek was still a blockbuster hit.
I was hoping for something more fulfilling, a world that is truly changed and affected by its unique history and lore. Instead, the superficialities of more interesting fantasy concepts and features are transplanted onto the world without the work being done to make them fit. It doesn’t feel lived-in and real, and therefore doesn’t stick with you, or engage in the same way the world of District 9 or even Game of Thrones does.
There are a thousand more interesting and less rote stories that could have been told, but what we’re left with is an average cop adventure with makeup for half the cast. Once you peel back the fantasy filter, it really highlights how much of a weak allegory the film draws in terms of race relations and the marginalization of communities. In this world, races are inherently different, but for the most part everything is exactly the same. In this world, a militarized and abusive police state and government is present, but cops are still the good guys, so let’s not examine that subject. In this world faerie lives don’t matter, and neither does anything else, really.