Netflix’s ‘Bright’ Is Formulaic, But Totally Worth Watching [Review]
Will Smith and Joel Edgerton star in this pastiche of urban dread and whimsical fantasy, but the former’s sheer charisma makes this sneakily a must-see film.
Netflix’s Bright is unabashedly formulaic, doing the emotional work of making Orcs the ill-begotten lower class who, over 2000 years ago, chose the wrong side in a worldwide fight against evil. In that time, they have yet to be forgiven. The plot is utterly predictable, each emotional beat more akin to a pop song than a $90 million dollar feature film. In that way, it works as a pastiche of ironic urban dread from the ‘80s, grittily realistic landscapes ensconced in sci-fi. But despite all its shortcomings, the damn thing is also worth watching.
Call it the dystopia of the moment, but the film’s overarching virtue is its adherence to a modern reality that doesn’t somehow slip into a porno of suffering. The movie does this through a predictable channel: Will Smith. His sheer charisma as grizzled cop Daryl Ward is palpable, even if he is channeling a more world-weary Bad Boys era Mike Lowry that doesn’t quite land.
Bright is cliché but with a twist: magical creatures are real, making up nine races that inhabit the Earth together. We meet four but only three count: the .1 percent is represented by Elves, somewhere in the middle are humans, and at the bottom are metal-listening, gang-banging Orcs.
Graffiti of their struggle against oppression fill up the walls of low places all over Los Angeles, as Orcs get drawn getting stomped out by police while rich AF Elves blithely stand by. They don’t look at Elves in the eye; they don’t hold any white collar jobs; they are this world’s janitors and criminals. IRL, they are Los Angeles’s black and latino citizens in the extreme, depicting South L.A., East L.A., and sections of downtown L.A. in stark contrast to the gleaming decorum of Elf-Town, instead of the scenes of the real life crime of gentrification that’s swallowing these communities whole.
It begins with Smith’s character getting blasted by a sawed-off shotgun while his partner—an Orc who’s the first of his kind to be a cop—gets him a burrito. He survives, but things quickly take a turn for the worse. Suddenly, it becomes an everybody vs. Daryl Ward (Will Smith) and Nick Jakoby (Joel Edgerton) romp the likes of Escape From L.A. or 48 Hours.
The big to-do is a magic wand, if you can believe it. An object of unimaginable power, the wand is protected by Federali’s of Magic. The only people on Earth who can wield wands are brights, modern day wizards—as it were—who, it’s implied offhandedly, are tracked down and monitored for their gifts. The only way to know if you’re a bright is to try and pick up a wand. If you don’t immediately burst into flames then you’re one. Lucky you.
Everyone is weary of Nick. Racist as hell, the other officers chastise Daryl for allowing the Orc to ride in his car. First, he got you blasted, they say. Who’s next? But Nick is no ordinary Orc. He is unblooded. He has shaved down his fangs. Meaning, he has not been recognized by any Orc clan as worthy of distinction—of being a respected member of their community. Yet, he is determined to fit into a world that despises him.
You see where this is going. The allusions are thinly veiled and for the rest of the film their unsophistication stick out like the Orcs overgrown incisors. On the Elven side, a traitor, Tikka, has stolen the wand of the leader of the Inferni, a group of Elves trying to bring back the Dark Lord. We are left to assume Orcs are in this mess because they chose to side with that thing instead of the rest of the nine races. How convenient.
But the realism involved in depicting an L.A. stirring in a mesh of different peoples, values, and socio-economic classes gives the film an immediacy you can’t escape.
A call leads to a shootout, which leads to begrudged partners finding Tikka and the wand. A misfit crew of crooked cops roll in with eyes on the thing. If they control it, they can get whatever wish they want granted. But first they want Daryl to do their dirty work. He refuses, then he and Jakoby are on the run from everyone: the Inferni, the cops, the Feds, a neighborhood gang, and a ruthless tribe of Orcs. All the while, they’re protecting the young Elf they’ve arrested, Tikka, from this throng of enemies. The film becomes tight here. The chases, explosions, and free-for-all action become digestible. Shit, maybe even fun.
Yet it’s Bright’s willingness to depict an L.A. with scars and Will Smith’s ability to bring his role something virtuous that leads the movie out of the darkness. And, in the end, the film’s cliché ending and the simplicity of the script doesn’t disappoint you, they elate you. In this world, where a child molester runs for a senate seat in Alabama and the POTUS endorses him; where he claims the time America was great was during slavery; where North Korea threatens us and our allies with nuclear annihilation; where terrorists are committing acts of hate in New York, Paris, Las Vegas, and elsewhere; where white supremacists wear khakis, polos, and swing tiki torches; the good versus evil trope is so heavily applied here it worms into what you wish would replace the outrageousness of current events.
This is probably the only time such a story is now believable. Maybe Smith is right. Maybe this is the purge; the darkness before the dawn. And maybe Bright had big plans. Plans so large that Max Landis’s script never comes close to reaching their aims. But, maybe, now, the most important thing is that the hero pulls it out in end.