Welcome to a post-racial alternate universe, but human nature still really isn’t so different. In this modern-day fantasy world, all mankind stands unified in their contempt for orcs and their jealousy for elves. Class distinctions are more stratified than ever, but even though we are mere mortals, we stand firmly in the middle, because the orcs threw their lot in with the Dark Lord way back when. They will never shake that scarlet letter, not even when one of their own joins the thin blue line. Daryl Ward does not like orcs any better than the next fellow, but he is stuck riding with Nick Jakoby, mismatched buddy-cop style in David Ayer’s Bright (trailer here), which premieres today on Netflix.
Ward was not exactly thrilled to partner with an orc in the first place, but he is even less so after getting shot by an orc thug, whom he suspects Jakoby deliberately let slip away. There is not a lot of trust there, even though Jakoby is desperately trying to make nice. Unfortunately, a clique of crooked cops wants Ward to set up his partner. Orc or no orc, that kind of dirty business does not sit well with Ward, but they leave little choice. However, the stakes really start to rise when Ward and Jakoby respond to a call involving magic.
According to screenwriter Max Landis’s system of magic, only “Brights” can wield magic wands. Of course, over 99% of such magic users are elves, but occasionally there is a human Bright. Sorry orcs, next time don’t side with the Dark Lord. As it happens, this might be the next time. Lialeh, the leader of the evil elf clan known as the Infirni aspires to raise the infernal overlord, but her wand was stolen by her remorseful protégé, Tikka. Now there is a mad scramble amongst all LA’s unsavory elements to recover the wand, which really doesn’t make sense, because if any non-Bright touches it, they will basically get atomized. You’d think they’d at least bring some oven mitts from home.
Bright is not the dumpster fire many critics are making it out to be, but it is safe to say internal logic is not its strong suit. On the other hand, Landis creates a compelling mythology, which he establishes without lines and lines of clunky expositional dialogue. Yet, on your third hand, there is no denying Bright gets clumsy and didactic driving home its admittedly well-meaning message of tolerance. We just so get it, after having our noses rubbed in it, six or seven times.
Regardless of all that, Joel Edgerton does some of his best work to date, despite the layers of orc prosthetics, as the painfully earnest Jakoby. It is a shockingly soulful performance, capturing the all the lonely alienation of an orc rejected by his own kind and despised by the rest of the world. In contrast, Will Smith never pushes himself the least little bit as Ward. He seems to think he can get by flashing his grin and cracking wise—and we really start to resent him for it, because he is more or less correct.
As Lialeh the villainess, Noomi Rapace looks like she gets indigestion from chewing scenery. It is too bad Vietnamese superstar Veronica Ngo does not get more dramatic heavy-lifting to do as her hench-elf Tien, considering she only appeared in Last Jedi for about thirty seconds as Paige Tico, but she still totally stole the picture as far as many fans as concerned. At least Edgar Ramírez looks like he is having fun as Kandomere, the Elfish federal Magic Squad agent.
The effects are pretty ho-hum, but Edgerton is terrific as Jakoby and Will Smith is Will Smith as Ward. The world-building is also impressive, but it would be even more effective if the film could go ten minutes without a teachable moment. Given the obvious parallels with Alien Nation it is also almost unforgivably awkward that the orc makeup looks so much like that of the “Newcomers.” It is more fun than you’ve likely heard, but it is not $90 million worth of fun. Recommended for fantasy fans who like their films loud and heavy-handed, Bright is now streaming on Netflix.