Netflix’s Bright manages to take one of the most interesting premises for a fantasy story I’ve seen in years, and boiling it down into a deeply average buddy cop piece, owing at least as much to Training Day as it does to William Gibson, Blade Runner, and the underrated tabletop role-playing game Shadowrun.
Being a lazy but enthusiastic consumer of media, rather than an actual critic, I went into Bright thinking it was the pilot for a series, not a discrete movie. And while this is a pretty good illustration of the kind of editorial standards we have around here, in that I probably should have known that going in, I’m not the only person who came out of the experience thinking “hey, that really SHOULD have been a pilot for a series, not a stand-alone film.”
There’s a lot here to like – the two leads are convincingly good together, with Will Smith’s crusty beat cop playing well off of Joel Edgerton’s more idealistic orcish partner Nick. The fantasy-spackled L.A. they patrol is immersive, with ethnic enclaves transformed into orc, elf and human neighborhoods. It’s visually striking. It is, in the final balance, fun.
But the strangest part about Bright is the fact that it takes a story about orcs and elves and magic wands in modern-day Los Angeles and makes it somehow pedestrian. The violence is bloody and thoughtless and cheapens the sensibility of the whole thing. Villains get, at most, about two sentences’ worth of depth before the shotguns and knives come out again with a flourish.
And what appallingly lame villains! A set of corrupt, racist cops, and a seemingly endless horde of Hispanic gangsters all directly out of central casting. The One Ring motivation is supposed to account for most of their misdeeds, with the exception of a group of pretty psychopaths who are just in it for the sake of maximum evil-itude. This, and the plot’s utterly standardized buddy-cop-flick beats are all jarringly unoriginal in Bright’s exciting, vivid setting.
That setting is probably the movie’s biggest strength, and the most damning criticism of the piece is that it simply doesn’t exploit that sufficiently. Would it have been so very difficult to give us more nuanced looks at elf or orc culture, or the ways that the three races are interwoven? As it is, Bright presents this potentially fascinating exploration of racism and difference among human beings via some extremely well-worn tropes. Grr, nobody likes each other. Grr, this is the tough neighborhood. Grr, our various peoples were mean to each other back in the day. There’s nothing sufficiently different from human history in there, which raises the question – if all we were going to do was riff on race relations and their effects, why did we need the fantasy trappings to begin with?
Bright’s flaws would be vastly easier to overlook in an episodic work, with the promise that sketchily drawn minor characters and underexplored aspects of its setting could be given more attention farther down the road. As it is, Bright feels like it misses a lot of opportunities to turn standout material into a standout experience – it’s fun, watchable and worth the effort, but nerdier audiences will wish that it had taken more risks. And that it should have been a damn miniseries, at the very least.
LAZY NERD SAYS: It’s like if Will Smith’s dog from that Legion movie talked, and also a bunch of talking dogs overran East L.A. and the zombies were all sexy and shopped at Saks. Also, dude; Legolas works for the FBI now, isn’t that sick?