“Buddy cop” action/comedies are nothing new, and while the formula has barely evolved since the days of Freebie and the Bean and Lethal Weapon fun can often be found in the new wrinkles filmmakers add into the mix. Zootopia made them CG animals, The Heat cast women (!), and 1988’s Alien Nation made one of the buddy cops an alien visitor from outer space.
This is a long-winded way of saying that writer Max Landis (American Ultra) has seen Alien Nation.
We’re dropped into the world of Bright — written by Landis and directed by David Ayer (Street Kings, Fury) — in similar fashion with a modern-day Los Angeles already home to humans and non-humans alike. Orcs and elves are part of society’s fabric with the former viewed as thuggish minorities and the latter as the wealthy elite. (We drive through the elves’ ritzy shopping district, and the film misses an opportunity by calling it Elftown instead of Beverly Hills.) Humans, meanwhile, are ubiquitous (just like the real world) and prejudicial towards both groups.
Officer Daryl Ward (Will Smith) is returning to the job after being shot by an orc, and he’s saddled with the department’s sole orc officer, a “diversity hire” named Officer Nick Jakoby (Joel Edgerton, unrecognizable beneath prosthetic makeup). Ward’s not thrilled about it, but what can you do? Turns out his fellow officers, upset with the orc’s presence on the force, have a plan to get rid of Jakoby for good, and their efforts coincide with another discovery. Ward and Jakoby have met a “bright” — a magically-infused being gifted with the ability to hold and use magic wands — and she’s in possession of one such wonder stick. The trio quickly has both other cops and street punks (human and orc) after them with an even greater threat close behind.
Bright borrows much of its plotting from the aforementioned Alien Nation and even lifts a scene wholesale from Ayer’s own Training Day script, and what little originality it does show is often far too rushed. The comedy is equally lopsided as every joke that lands (some do!) is followed by three that feel forced and unfunny. Happily for action/comedy fans, though, the fights, gunplay, and vehicular action beats are typically well-crafted by genre vet Ayer, and Smith anchors it all as he’s done so many times before.
There are teases of an interesting world here, but while we get the nomenclature (Magic Task Force, Shield of Light, the Inferni) none of it really amounts to much. The task force, in particular, carries a Men in Black vibe, but beyond being told that they’re in charge of wand discoveries the pair (led by a stone-faced Edgar Ramirez) just follow the action around. Big bad elf Leilah’s (Noomi Rapace) evil plan is simplicity itself — she needs the wand to bring an even bigger bad into the world — but it’s back-loaded into a third-act narrative dump, and as far as epic villain names go “the Dark Lord” is wholly generic.
Character strokes are slight on both sides of the moral divide, and it seems the main reason these aspects aren’t given more time in the two-hour film is that so much of it is spent trying to be funny or to enforce parallels to L.A.’s real-world issues of race, police brutality, and more. It was never going to be subtle, but subtext becomes text fairly quickly and never looks back.
Smith hasn’t had the best track record of late with Concussion and Collateral Beauty failing to find an audience and Ayer’s own Suicide Squad leaving critics and many DC fans uninspired, but he does well back in his element of shoot-outs and wise-cracks. Edgerton, meanwhile, flounders somewhat with a performance that almost feels at times like it’s modeled after a certain Mandy Patinkin role. The supporting cast is mixed, but it’s great seeing Veronica Ngo (Clash) kick butt and The Mindy Project‘s Ike Barinholtz play a heavy.
The film wraps up neatly but still ends with plenty of smaller questions to be answered, presumably in the already announced sequel, including more than a few about this Dark Lord fellow. Or why it’s okay to kill the very humanoid-looking fairies as if they’re vermin. Or why there’s a bipedal lizard-crossing sign.
Bright is muddled in a lot of ways, almost all of them dealing with the fantasy-laden reality it’s trying to create, but it works well enough as a lightweight buddy cop action/comedy. If you watched Alien Nation and thought “I bet this would be cool with orcs” than you’re already half in its bag.
The Upside: Solid action beats, cast is having fun, some laughs
The Downside: Forced humor, slight characters, rushed plot details, stakes not made all that clear, most of the film is dimly-lit (ironically)