Netflix has reportedly harbored ambitions for some time to add “blockbuster” popcorn movies to its extensive repertoire of original, Netflix-exclusive content. It’s first earnest entry in this game is “Bright,” an attempt at a few genres, but for the sake of naming just one, we’ll say “science fiction.” The movie stars Will Smith as your average veteran LAPD officer Daryl Ward, who happens to be paired with the country’s first Orc cop (yes, like the bad guys in Lord of the Rings), a rookie humanly named Nick Jakoby (played by soon-to-be-A-Lister Joel Edgerton). In the opening scene, Ward is shot from across a crowded outdoor market. Jakoby, who is off buying them lunch, pursues the attacker, an Orc, though we only see so in flashbacks later in the film. Ward’s injury and Jakoby’s lack of capturing the fellow Orc suspect adds a tension to not only their relationship, but also Jakoby’s reputation among other cops as an untrustworthy colleague more likely to choose his own kind over enforcing the law.
Following Ward’s recovery, other officers disparagingly refer to Jakoby as Ward’s “diversity project,” and at first try, then eventually threaten, Ward with several schemes to get him to participate in getting the Orc ousted from the LAPD. On their first patrol together following the incident, Ward holds steady with Jakoby, though not without some confrontation, and the two find themselves in the middle of an ancient war over “magic wands” (you read that right) and attempts by rogue Elves to bring back the “Lord of Darkness” (Sauron? …What is happening here!?) At one point on this patrol, the pair and a Sheriff’s Deputy pal of Ward’s (played by Jay Hernandez), confront a seemingly crazed man named Serling, who’s swinging a sword around in the middle of the street. The man, once contained, claims to be part of an ancient brotherhood sworn to defeat the Lord of Darkness. A unique tattoo proves it. Uh… Ok. We learn about Brights at this point, who are few among the population, and even more rare among humans. Only Brights can handle the magic wands and summon their power. Chase scenes, choppy action, and an almost offensive level of violence ensue, all to a somewhat predictable end.
Lost in the over-abundance of killing, guns, violence, and more guns? The movies first real victims of course – a good story and comprehendible plot points. The production, which reportedly crept upwards of $80-$100 million, nevertheless pumped the breaks hard on the idea that the film could exceed 2 hours of run time to tell the story we deserved. Among items lost in the excessive violence and action sequences is an utter lack of backstory. Bright opening credit sequence presents some early “homework” for the viewer in the form of neatly written but quickly out of frame graffiti clues, the attempt of which is to provide hints of a historical context. But the movie provides near zero context as to why, in either a modern or not-to-distant future Los Angeles, Orcs, Elves, Fairies and humans all live among one another. Did our heroes from Middle Earth somehow ascend to find us on yet another mystical journey? (This would have actually made for a better film) In this version of Earth, did we always live among one another? Vague references to prophesies and decisions one tribe made against another hundreds of years ago don’t seem to reveal much of an answer. And Serling and this ancient brotherhood? We never see or hear from them again. Add to this brew a mix of tribal traditions, underbelly of L.A. street gangs, and average Joes rising to the occasion, and the end result is a movie that seems to fail at its attempts with every genre whose box it’s trying to check.
The lack of historical context further hinders viewers’ ability to understand the source of characters’ motivations. Specifically, where do the Elves all fit into this? Namely, the seemingly noble Tikka and her evil companion Leilah – both Brights – the latter being determined to release the Lord of Darkness and let him destroy at will. We have no idea what moves Leilah or her radical band of Elves to bring about Armageddon (aside from perhaps an Elf-like superiority complex?), and her character is so unsympathetic and uncomplex it’s a wonder why an actress of Noomi Rapace’s caliber was called on to fill her limited screen time. The only other main character among the Elves, Kandomere (played by Edgard Ramirez, looking bored as usual), is a Federal Agent out to secure the magic wands before they can be used for evil… we think. There is no certainty we can really trust Kandomere or his human partner, Montehugh (played by Mindhunter’s Happy Anderson, last seen fancying women’s footwear). Even by movies end, the Fed’s unsatisfied faces aren’t all that convincing as they let Ward and Jakoby off the hook for not exactly telling a straight story of the night’s events. They just sort of … listen. It makes one wonder if these two characters were even necessary (Kind of like this movie).
So back to that Ring that rules them all… NO, sorry! The Wand. The magic wand, yes. Actually, it’s 3 wands, that, if pulled together by any Bright, can release the Lord of Darkness upon on us all. No one other than a Bright can even touch a wand without devastating consequences to themselves or anyone within what seems to be about a 100-foot radius, making the magic tool quite the sought-after prize. Some want ultimate power, while others, like local Latino gang lord “Poison,” played by an unrecognizable Enrique Murciano (“Bloodline’s” [only] noble Deputy Sheriff, Marco Diaz), just want to cure for their paraplegic state so they can pee in a toilet and have sex with their girlfriend. Yeah, ok. We get it – these wands are pretty good if you can get one. But why now? Again, without the historical context, we don’t know why the search for the wands is particularly in vogue at present, or how the rogue Elves can possibly know that historical prophesy is really in play.
Bright tries very hard to mix an “Alien Nation” buddy cop story in with and “End of Watch” meets “Collateral” L.A. Noir. Unfortunately, Bright, despite the high production value in the aforementioned action sequences and set pieces, ultimately comes off as a half-assed and somewhat bizarre attempt to make a Middle Earth story into a modern fable of good and evil, or maybe racial harmony. But why did a film need fantasy characters as metaphors for race relations? Don’t we have plenty of fodder within the human race itself? And even without using humans, there is scant proof by movie’s end that the humans and Tolkien-esque fantasy characters have truly advanced racial parity. I mean, does Jakoby getting a service medal and kudos from fellow Orcs really equate to a more just society? Edgerton is one (I can’t believe I’m going to say) bright spot as the Orc trying to earn his species a better reputation. And Smith’s massive ego manages to stay in check. But only one thing is for certain about “Bright.” If Netflix decides to spend money on a sequel, it had better be one Hell of a prequel with “Empire Strikes Back”-level credentials to help me understand what it is that I was looking at for 1 hour and 57 minutes. Because no magic wand can deliver me that time back. And believe me, I would take it if I could.
p.s. Since viewing the film a few days ago, industry trades are reporting Netflix will produce a sequel, with Will Smith returning as Ward. Oh, Lordy (…of Darkness, you can’t come soon enough)!