Directed by David Ayer
Written by Max Landis
Starring Will Smith, Joel Edgerton, Lucy Fry, Noomi Rapace, and Edgar Ramierz
Rated MA for adult language, adult situations, violence, and nudity
Reber’s Rating: A-
That’s right. Don’t wipe your eyes because the words seem fuzzy. I am giving the latest Will Smith blockbuster – though, given that Bright is streaming exclusively on Netflix, does that term apply? – that high of a rating. I had seen the headlines the last couple of days once the review embargo lifted. Most of my fellow critics absolutely loathed David Ayer’s follow-up to his abysmal Suicide Squad. Ayer opted for a safe return back to the world of corrupt cops, unrestrained gangs, and virtuous officers sworn by duty and honor. Granted, in this world we have the existence of magic, just one slice of the film that critics absolutely bashed. But critics went even further. That Bright was boring. A narrative mess. Lacking in smarts. Generic. Confusing. Insulting.
What? Now, this is not the first time this year I’ve questioned my peers this year. (Actually, my reviews for the most part in 2017 have gone against their critiques.) But what movie did they sit down to watch exactly? What were they expecting, a movie fit for Best Picture acclaim? God, this movie veers in the total opposite direction. Don’t believe the click-bait rolling throughout your news feed. Don’t buy the reviews written with the aim to make sense of a fantasy film. That’s just the idea too, that a movie be rooted not just in the fantasy but also as gritty cop thriller too. Bright is something absolutely unexpected, though perhaps a bit heavy-handed, but rife with slick quips and blazing action sequences held together by an unrecognizable Joel Edgerton and Will Smith, clearly having fun with his work for the first time in over five years. (That’d be 2012’s Men In Black 3 for you all keeping score.)
That’s right. When Will Smith seems to be enjoying himself – see Men In Black, Bad Boys, Hancock, hell, even Hitch – then the movie really ain’t all that bad. A focused and loose Will Smith can elevate any mediocre feature into something special and unique. Welcome back, Will. We’ve missed you.
Let me ask the most obvious question, since others feels that Max Landis’ script is a too muddled and baffling. Is a plot that spells out what is going on so much of a baffling wreck? Bright is far more simple to follow than most of today’s tentpole blockbusters, the players as opaque and easy to follow than your average Michael Bay explosion-fest. Daryl Ward (Smith) is an experienced LAPD officer, though hard to work with due to his nobility and moralistic attitude. He’s partnered with the first orc in the force, Nick Jakoby (Eedgerton), whose awkwardness and dry wit clash with Ward’s distrust in Nick’s race. Their precinct finds Jakoby’s inclusion to be a joke, incorporating a foreigner into their ranks more an insult than thoughtful move. But when Ward and Jakoby race into a routine call and stumble upon a magic wand, a bewildered elf named Tikka (Lucy Fry) trying to protect the device, the two find themselves on the run from everyone. Gangs (human and orc), elves, federal agents, and police alike descend like the darkness. Can Ward and Jakoby discern who can be trusted? Is Tikka a person of interest? Can Ward and Jakoby settle their differences? And moreover, what is a Bright and can a Bright help save our heroes?
Okay, you got me there. The plot is a bit familiar. The questions are simple, the answers as clear as a summer’s night sky. Landis isn’t trying to break new ground. After all the motto is “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.’ Landis injects his brand of witticism into the script, elevating performance over plot, keeping your attention onto the characters and not guessing what proceeds with the narrative. You can sit there and take a guess what’ll happen next. And you could be right, from start to finish. Though the plot is nothing new, Landis’ ability to weave gold with dialogue makes the cast become the focal point of Bright. The banter between Ward and Jakoby keeps their plight fresh, bickering at each other when their backs are to a wall, waves of faceless miscreants around each corner. Even Ward’s fellow officers spin some fresh exchanges. Landis finally found a director who understands his works. And Ayer knows that audiences will be more invested in the dutiful Ward and his wishful partner Jakoby, not the villains who are as cookie-cutter as store-bought Christmas sugar cookies. Noomi Rapace’s Liela may have her own desires alongside her fast-moving hired guns but honestly, she’s not there to garner sympathy as much as she’s there to lay waste to fodder in her path with a twisted glee.
Though, if one complaint, there’s several instances where I felt like I was watching Ayers’ greatest hits, some scene specifics seemingly plucked from the director’s library. Sure, veering away from the obvious tropes in cop dramas will be hard to dodge. The partners who don’t get along due to racial tension. The young idealistic rookie looking to make an impression. Heroes on the run from everyone around them. There’s points where I saw the great End of Watch unfolding on the screen, with a dash of Training Day and a hint of Street Kings thrown in for good measure. (Though, the movie plays off a lot more like Dark Blue, a movie that remains forgotten but was a crowning moment for Kurt Russell.) Ayer’s bread-and-butter has always been the honest-cop-over-his-head, sincere protectors of the law who have lost their way and work to honor what they love. I suppose Ayer will find difficult avoiding treading into familiar waters, but thankfully he knows how to evoke compelling performances from his cast.
I will applaud Max Landis – finally, John Landis’ kid gets his damn big break! – for not shying away from weaving topical and relevant themes into his screenplay. Landis specifically wrote the screenplay for Ayer, and from the get-go I got the feeling that Landis’ outlandish imagination melded with Ayer’s audacious flair would make for a great partnering. Though Ayer has tackled such strong topics in the past, especially with 2008’s Street Kings (a personal fave), Landis’ approach is something wholly different. Making the orcs to be the ones that mankind raises their nose to in disapproval and disdain lends to a whole different perspective on the topic. We’ve seen this type of movie before – 1988’s excellent Alien Nation comes to mind first – but things haven’t improved much near thirty years on. We’ve long overdue to explore such thematic elements. If we need to address these social elements in a more fantasy-like setting, so be it. Message received, understood, and then some.
The fantasy elements aren’t absolutely preposterous, still trying to keep the narrative more down-to-earth, with a major tip-of-the-cap to J.R.R. Tolkien. Fairies are more of the mean Guillermo del Toro creation we met in Hellboy: The Golden Army, a nuisance that remain attracted to bright lights like nats, chasing down those who try to swat them dead like pests. (Yes, there’s a fleeting moment early on when Will Smith takes care of a fairy snacking out of his hummingbird feeder, treating the winged annoyance like an insect.) The orcs and elves look awfully familiar too. I doubt this is a twisted what-if on the Lord of the Rings franchise but a good homage never hurt anyone. Hell, why no one has tried to have a world rife with elves and orcs co-existing with mankind in modern society is beyond my comprehension. Here, the elves are the rich and powerful elitists whilst the orcs are looked down upon as street trash and unfit to garner respect. The orcs turn more towards crime, banding together in gangs to rule the streets, the elves keeping the gutter garbage away from their clean streets. Hell, the federal agents from the Magic Task Force (worth a groan all in itself for lack of originality) are nods to both Legolas and Gimli in looks, head to toe. Not even kidding. Landis clearly owes the Tolkien estate his gratitude.
Will watching major new Hollywood spectacles day one via Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon ever replace the experience of traveling to a movie theater? Entering a lobby, the smell of buttery popcorn swirling through your nostrils, a wide array of various candies on display at the register, the anticipation of seeing a movie you’ve curbed your appetite for months building inside you? Absolutely not. There’s something absolutely cold about still being in my pajamas, a cup of steamy coffee next to me, my Christmas tree aglow in the corner, that is ultimately a bit disappointing. Bright is a film I feel that would benefit big screen exposure, the sound system crackling with the abrasive sound editing, the thumping of David Sardy’s bombastic score. And yeah, the film’s a bit on the dark end in terms of color, but Reed Hastings was adamant the $90 million production was best suited for the streaming service. Would a limited engagement in theaters have been that much of a bother?
Still, waiting a whole year to see Will Smith return to form was worth it. There were some days I pondered if Bright would just be another generic David Ayer cop drama. Others, I would catch the trailer and not feel as concerned. Yet here I am, just hours after Netflix’s biggest gamble dropped on the streaming service, and all of my doubts have been eroded. Landis brings in the right amount of humor with a commonplace plot, building on old tropes of racism and fear-mongering as the heart of his story. Ayer has learned valuable lessons from shooting Suicide Squad that makes Bright much more of an accomplishment on his filmography than some of his other works. Hell, something must have worked – Netflix already greenlit a sequel. If any of the trailers raised your curiosity, take two hours out of your schedule and immerse yourself in this rollicking return to form for Will Smith. As usual, the hard-nosed critics are way off base. You’re meant to enjoy a movie like this with a wide grin, not question life and your mortal existence in a science fiction popcorn flick.