In a time where the public’s trust in law enforcement is so low, David Ayer’s Bright, a cop drama set in an alternate Los Angeles populated by orcs, elves, fairies, and humans, had the potential to use its metaphor-laden scenario as a means to seriously examine the way police interact with different segments of the population. But Max Landis’s screenplay is largely in the business of having characters offer up snarky retorts in the context of a gritty urban environment that’s been lamely infused with elements of po-faced fantasy.
Early in the film, L.A.P.D. officer Daryl Ward (Will Smith) confronts a fairy who’s wreaking havoc on his bird feeder. After trading barbs with his gangster neighbors hanging out on the lawn next door, Ward grabs a broom and quips, “Fairy lives don’t matter today,” before beating the bothersome fairy to death. Very much intended to be played for laughs, the scene sets up the film’s non-human species as definitively subhuman on its way to turning a movement specifically aligned against abusive police tactics into a punchline.
This almost distasteful justification of police violence is more strongly echoed when Ward casually and silently passes by fellow officers as they brutally beat several unarmed orcs. These scenes, which lean on presenting a single race of people as inherently inferior by highlighting their morally bankrupt behavior, exemplify the tone-deafness of a film that blunts the effectiveness of whatever commentary it’s trying to deliver about police corruption.
Ward soon joins up with his rookie partner, Nick Jakoby (Joel Edgerton), the first and only orc on the force, and it’s throughout their beat that we learn unequivocally that humans generally despise orcs. The city’s orc population is seen as teeming with low lifes, most of whom see Jakoby as a traitor. The stark contrast between the orcs and the elves who are understood to represent society’s one percent is seemingly laid out as a class critique, but the film never follows through on its inquiries, neither presenting the elves as active oppressors nor the orcs as the oppressed. Instead, the orcs’ lower position in society appears to be of their own doing, resulting from their collective decision to serve the mysterious “Dark Lord” thousands of years ago.
Bright briefly appears to concern itself with the nature of police corruption when four officers who discover a magical wand and want to use it for their own gain turn on Ward and Jakoby. The partners flee the scene with the wand, as well as Tikka (Lucy Fry), a young elf known as a “bright” (someone capable of wielding the power of the wand without harming themselves) who needs their help. But then the film shifts drastically and irrevocably toward a convoluted, high-fantasy storyline whose mythology constantly shape-shifts to make room for a parade of unpredictable yet mostly inane plot twists.
Bright becomes so overstuffed with narrative incident that it isn’t until after the halfway point that it even introduces the Inferni, a group referred to as the “magic Illuminati,” and establishes its leader, Leilah (Noomi Rapace), as the story’s big bad. At this point, the film doubles down on its hodgepodge of genre clichés, including Leilah’s quest for the wand to summon the Dark Lord for some reason or another and the introduction of resurrection and savior myths. And further complicating Bright’s troubling racial politics is how an evil Latino gang is dragged into the vicious hunt for the wand.
Early on, Ayer’s direction is relatively surefooted, especially throughout a series of car chases, but he stumbles when trying to articulate his setting’s underlying mythology. First he half-mockingly observes the ballast of fantasy that’s brought to the forefront of the film, only to then regard the potentially catastrophic repercussions of the mystical mayhem with the grave seriousness of an old sage. Such a welter of dissonant intentions is emblematic of Bright, which fails to seamlessly intertwine its elements of realism and fantasy. Ayer craves both the brutal intensity and immediacy of an action-packed cop drama and the intricately crafted mythology of a fantasy world but never fully commits to either. So interested in having its cake and eating it too, Bright is always threatening to burst at the seams, and by the time Ward glibly says, “Fuck magic,” in the final scene, this inconsistent, incoherent mess of a film all but begs you to agree with him.