Bright: Rather Dim, by Ian Brill
David Ayer’s Suicide Squad was a mixed bag but easily the weakest aspect was the mystical villain Enchantress and her giant CGI-borne brother Incubus. Their place in their story felt like a concession — that superhero films must have big special effect villains and set pieces at the end, and these characters were Ayer’s limp attempt to live up to that tradition. It’s disappointing that Ayer’s next film, Bright, would devote itself almost entirely to the type of special effects fantasy found in his last film’s least interesting storyline. This time we’re in a modern Los Angeles where humans live alongside orcs, elves, and fairies. This novel concept is expressed with a series of bland choices, leading up to another special effects-soaked climax that feels as perfunctory as Suicide Squad’s.
Will Smith and Joel Edgerton play mismatched police partners. The division between them is that Smith’s Ward is human and Edgerton’s Jakoby is an orc. The idea of mismatched cops is a cliché so old that it was combined with other genres in 1988, when Alien Nation combined a human cop with an alien partner. It’s been almost 30 years since that film and Bright offers nothing new. In the first third, the audience is told again and again that Ward blames Jakoby for the former being shot by an orc. Jakoby is a “diversity hire,” the first orc police officer, one who is hated by the otherwise all-human police force (there are some centaur officers in the background, but everyone mentions Jakoby as a singular phenomenon – an example of the film’s disinterest in its own internal mythos).
Smith’s Ward is angry and Edgerton’s Jakoby is naïve (far too naïve for a police officer in a major city) and those notes just get played back and forth. The bigotry that Jakoby faces is handled simplistically. He’s asked multiple times if he’s a cop or an orc. He states plainly how many times he’s felt ostracized by his own orc community, although with no great depth or insight into that community. At one point, he is literally walking down the hall of a station with a “kick me” sign on his back, which he is oblivious to. That Ayer and writer Max Landis would trot out such a hoary old gag tells you how superficial the film is when handling the subject of bigotry. The film never tackles how human society would change in a caste system that has orcs at the bottom of society and elves at the top, with humans in the middle. Has human-on-human bigotry ended or changed due to these circumstances? It’s never discussed. All the promise of Bright’s concept is extinguished by a lack of any character development.
The story kicks in and it’s only more clichés and dashed opportunities. Ward and Jakoby come upon a magic wand, which Jakoby describes as a “nuclear weapon that grants wishes,” and a “bright,” one of the few people, usually elves, that use a wand. Both the wand and the bright, Lucy Fry’s Tikka, are poorly served. The film’s tin-eared mix of fantasy tropes and faux-edginess is exemplified when another officer, played by Ike Barinholtz (another wasted talent) says the wand can grant you any wish including “a bigger dick” or “you can go back and marry the girl who didn’t blow you on prom night.” But how is the wand used in the film? It’s a shiny MacGuffin, the kind we’ve seen in the less imaginative Marvel and DC films. Ward and Jakoby run from place to place, chased by gang members, crooked cops, and evil killer elves led by Noomi Rapace’s Leliah.
There’s no rhyme or reason to where Ward and Jakoby go when they’re on the run. The chase starts when Ward makes a drastic sacrifice for Jakoby, one that seems to contradict his hatred for his partner that comes out of nowhere due to the simplistic writing and Smith’s performance that coasts on his charms. From there, the cops and Tikka end up in the kinds of places gritty urban dramas tend to go. They end up in a rock club where orcs and human play metal, even though the crowd dresses like punks from the 80s, and of course there is the strip club flooded with fluorescent lights. Throughout this chase, neither cop pays much attention to Tikka, who is portrayed as an innocent sprite that can only speak elvish, until she starts speaking English at the most convenient time. By the time that occurs, it’s plainly obvious these characters only make decisions when the story, as much as there is one, demands it.
Rapace is ill-used as the almost-silent elf accompanied by two totally-silent killer elves that are just one step behind the heroes. They are not characters, just devices to create mayhem. That would be easier to forgive if the action was done well, but it isn’t. Ayer rarely puts figures in the center of the frame. Between that and the editing that eschews any sense of “cause and effect” and you have action that doesn’t invite the viewers, only bores them. The film culminates in an ending that feels like a lesser version of Suicide Squad’s fantastical climax, with the magic wand, which we are told could recreate reality, being used by Rapace’s powerful elf as just another CGI weapon. But by the point this happens any viewer can see that Bright is dedicated to using promising ideas in the least imaginative ways possible.