There may be no more unexpected (or damning) faint praise for David Ayer’s new movie “Bright” than this: It made me wish I was watching “Suicide Squad” instead.
If this new Netflix production exemplifies Ayer’s creativity unfettered by major-studio interference, I’ll take a lousy DC movie over… whatever this is any day of the week. Astoundingly bad in virtually every way, “Bright” shares in common several of the shortcomings of Ayer’s previous film, including conspicuous evidence of desperate efforts to cobble its under-explained and yet somehow overcomplicated mythology into something coherent. It also snipes at the heels of sci-fi movies and miniseries like “V” and “Alien Nation” that explored race relations better literally decades ago.
Even Will Smith’s irrepressible charisma can’t compete with the unrelentingly muddy production design, the poorly-conceived characters and a profoundly stupid racial metaphor that somehow amplifies stereotypes of actual ethnic groups. The result is another genre disaster that’s only impressive in how arrogantly the filmmakers presume audiences will want it to be expanded into a franchise.
Smith plays Daryl Ward, an LAPD officer in an alternate timeline where faeries, elves and, most importantly, orcs coexist semi-peacefully with humans. Recovering from a point-blank shotgun blast to the chest, Daryl rejoins the force mostly to protect his pension, but his resolve is tested when he is paired with Nick Jakoby (Joel Edgerton), the first-ever orc cop, whose negligence resulted in his injury.
Meanwhile, Nick encounters resistance from his own colleagues, higher-ups and a very vocal public, who not only want him thrown off the force, but to end his tenure in disgrace.
During the routine investigation of a crime scene, Daryl and Nick stumble upon a secret lair where Tikka (Lucy Fry, “Vampire Academy”), an elf, is hiding after acquiring a magic wand that can only be wielded by special individuals, called “brights.”
But their efforts to follow procedure soon deteriorate after several of their fellow officers, two members of a federal “Magic Task Force,” a local street gang and an evil elf named Leilah (Noomi Rapace) demand that they turn over the wand. Soon, Daryl, Nick and Tikka find themselves on the run as they attempt to come to terms with the power of the wand and the ramifications of what might happen — not just to them, but all of Earth’s coexisting species — if should end up in the wrong hands.
There is an interesting story in here somewhere, one that brings together reality and fantasy, explores the juxtaposition of downtown skyscrapers and swooping dragons and illuminates the daily practicalities of neighbors with magic powers or unusual abilities.
But “Bright” takes a bunch of gobbledygook from “The Lord of the Rings,” liquefies it in a blender and pours it liberally over the same “corrupt cop comes to a moral crossroads” blueprint that Ayer has been copying since “Training Day.”
Worse, Max Landis’ script — supposedly rewritten heavily by Ayer — turns the whole mess into a parable of discrimination, clumsily evoking troubling moments in race relations both new (“Faerie lives don’t matter today”) and old (the Rodney King beating) to preach tolerance while somehow doubling down on stereotypes of Latinos and other people of color.
Even on a basic narrative level, few of Ayer’s choices make complete sense (or maintain a consistent tone), except to serve a half-baked sense of professional obligation, brotherhood or old school machismo that he seems to believe bonds his two central characters.
It’s easy to understand why no one wants to partner with Nick, but why doesn’t anybody like Daryl, as he is explicitly told? Are they truly the only two honest cops in all of this movie’s present-day Los Angeles? How is it possible that a “Magic Task Force” can refer to Tikka and Leilah exclusively on a first-name basis, possess recent photos of both, and yet have no idea where they are — and not be capable of tracking them down after South Central Los Angeles literally explodes with car chases and shootouts to acquire the wand?
And if everyone believes in the authenticity and power of a magic wand, why does nobody seem to know that only Brights can hold it? And why hadn’t anyone tried to steal it before?
Smith seems lost here as Daryl, even as he retreads his wiseacre pose from films like “Independence Day” and especially “Men in Black.” And Edgerton, buried under some combination of prosthetics and CGI, struggles to convey his character’s humorless, earnest intentions — appearing naïve or hopelessly inexperienced instead.
As elves, meanwhile, Fry and Rapace are opposite sides of the same insufferable coin. Fry shivers and spouts gibberish from beneath stringy locks like a poor man’s impersonation of Milla Jovovich in “The Fifth Element,” while Rapace literally muscles through one meticulously choreographed fight scene after another en route to a climactic monologue in which she clearly and concisely lays out her entire villainous plan.
Worst of all, “Bright” is ugly to watch — dingy, poorly staged, taking place mostly at night and in torrential rain for no seeming reason than to cover up how badly its action is shot and edited. Every moment is either too long or not long enough, and even basic spatial and logistical geography makes no sense. The characters fight “Warriors”-style across the city, somehow getting in and out of one locked room, packed club or secret alcove after another without energy or suspense.
When so much of the plot relies upon impossible coincidence, arbitrary change or pure contrivance, perhaps the title is intended to be ironic.