Bright’s set-up is ancient: two cops from opposite sides of the track/world/acting spectrum combine forces to defeat a common foe because it’s in their job description, but boy, do they not gel! This time it’s a human/fantasy beast hybrid – an orc, specifically – and while that’s an interesting idea, Bright somehow manages to be new and completely unoriginal at the same time.
It goes without saying that this buddy-out-of-water cop film has been done better. The trailer alone doesn’t clarify if this is a TV series or a movie, since the production values are kind of SyFy for a $90 million project (which was clearly spent on casting and craft services). Once you start watching you realize that you’ve seen this movie before. You’ve seen it with aliens (Alien Nation), monsters (Hellboy), convicts (48 Hours), Russians (Red Heat), the suicidal ex-marine (Lethal Weapon), actors (Ride Along), a Golden Girl (Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot) and even by director Ayer himself. Ayer wrote Training Day and directed End of Watch and Street Kings, all of which are pretty much Bright without special effects. That Ayer has cashed in those chips for bigger checks like directing Suicide Squad and Bright suggests he’s played his creative hand. The film’s attempts at political relevancy (“Fairy lives don’t matter today!”) are ham-fisted when they’re presented at all, which is every five minutes. I wanted to be offended by the insensitive application of real-world cop abuse as a series of jokes early on but so much of it was so corny on arrival I spent most of my time trying to stop myself from acquiring cirrhosis of the liver from all of the drinking game shots I was taking by mouthing their lines as they came. Every cliché cop line ever uttered is used here, with a knowing wink that’s so obvious you’re not sure that the winker isn’t trying to adjust a contact lens.
Bright is both over-cast and under-acted. Joel Edgerton is usually a good time but is uneven here and that’s the script’s fault. As orc partner Nick Jakoby, he is called to be too many things at once: the infallibly moral naive rookie who vomits expository magic lessons where actual story comes up short. Noomi Rapace is completely wasted playing an evil elf who has too little to do and could have been played by anyone. Lucy Fry manages to get loads of screen time as the buddy cop third wheel while leaving almost no impression whatsoever. Almost every actor after that is handed a paper-thin stock character from Training Day or buried under enough make-up to hide the fact that they were in this film.
The largest problem with Bright, however, is the same problem every Will Smith film has: Smith himself. The minute you hire him you have the budget to do whatever film you want, but you also have to make the film that Will Smith’s career (TM) allows you to make. It is no coincidence that this effort feels like another series of films that Smith has already made, the Bad Boys franchise, right down to the protect-the-cute-witness threesome. The DNA of Smith’s respectability-impulsive career is that wherever he appears, a punch is pulled. He is only going to do so much on the screen before it feels too out of the Will Smith lane. His idea of being edgy is cursing. Of course, Smith never met a comedic shot he didn’t like, and we are treated to an endless barrage of one-liners at every turn, making Bright perhaps the most Fresh Prince-esque movie of all. I kept waiting for Uncle Phil to show up and throw an elf out the front door of a mansion or a fairy to break out in a Carlton side-hop.
Smith famously turned down the Neo role in The Matrix and has seemingly been chasing that decision ever since, signing on for every messiah complex story to come down the Hollywood pike that can afford him, or changing the script enough to make it so. He has played some version of The Chosen One in Men in Black, Hancock, I Am Legend, I, Robot…it’s kind of a thing with him. Hey, Will Smith just wants to save the world, people. At the same time he keeps gaslighting us into thinking it’s destiny when no one was asking for his help in the first place. An ensemble piece once in a while wouldn’t hurt, Will.
The plot is loaded with ridiculous logic holes, most notably the number of times the heroes are threatened or tortured to reveal the location of a magic wand they have acquired that is always in the same room as them, which the villains would know if they frisked the third wheel elf the cops have been dragging around for half of the movie. There are also villains who are impossibly agile and lethal in one scene, and completely inept at close range combat in the next. And orcs who can lift cars but then only manage to give Will Smith a puffy eye after a gang pile-on. And so on.
There was potential here but it was wasted on a director who apparently thought that since Netflix doesn’t generally release films theatrically it meant “shoot it like a TV show.” You’ve seen worse, but that’s hardly a measure of how you should spend an hour and a half of your life. But let’s be honest: If you watch one film on Netflix per month, you’ve paid about what you would for one movie ticket. You’ve essentially gotten your money’s worth and everything else you watch is icing. So most of you are going to end up at least hitting play on this because you’ve sat through this kind of thing before and enjoyed enough of it that you’ll figure, “What’s one more, especially if it’s free?” And on a scale from high (Beasts of No Nation) to suicide note fodder (50% of what’s on Netflix), this is a firm 3:00 AM put-me-to-sleep cognac.