Once upon a time, a man saw Training Day. Then, feeling that he did not get enough Southern California grit and grime in his pop-culture diet, he proceeded to watch 2005’s Harsh Times and 2012’s End of Watch in quick succession. Those were really good, the gentleman thought. But what they all needed was a healthy dose of Will Smith. And a lot more elves. And maybe some orcs. No, scratch that: definitely a shitload of orcs.
Let’s say, for argument’s sake, that you are that man. Do not worry: David Ayer and Max Landis totally have your back. The former penned the script for that aforementioned Denzel Washington thriller, and wrote and directed those other two City-of-Angels cops-and-crime movies. The latter is a prolific screenwriter who occasionally moonlights as an Internet troll, so he has a first-hand knowledge of mythological creatures. What they’ve come up with is a high-concept blend that, on paper, seems ingenious. In some future version of America, humans and your run-of-the-mill fantasy creatures – fairies, centaurs, dragons, etc. – live together in perfect disharmony. Elves have become the pointy-eared elite. Orcs are the oppressed lower class, consigned to live in rough neighborhoods in South Central. One of them, Jakoby (Joel Edgerton), is trying to make it as a police officer. He faces prejudice within his precinct and from his reluctant partner, Daryl (Smith). They patrol the mean streets of Los Angeles, keeping everything in check. Welcome to L.A.P.D. of the Rings.
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Kicking off with a montage featuring “Curse the Police” graffiti and murals of orcs with fists raised in the air, Bright wastes no time in setting up its magic + metaphor modus operandi and quickly pounding it in to the ground. Then, perhaps realizing that it has little to really say about racial relations or class divisions in America past “because, see, the orcs are like African-Americans in this scenario, you totally picked up on that, right?”, the movie drops any attempt at using the conceit in the name of satire or incisiveness past an N.F.L. dig or two. (Can a metaphor be both overplayed and underdeveloped at the same time? Yes. Yes, it most certainly can be.) You’ll get lots of violence and colorful threats and confusing shoot-outs, but you’re not going to get much meaning. In other words, this is not the Suicide Squad that liberals want.
Besides, Ayer is less interested in making a statement then making a cop procedural – that’s his specialty, and the man’s good at it – so we jump straight in to the ride-alongs and hassling orc street gangs and “the old-school Ramparts shit.” But remember, in this place, magic wands are a rarity, and everyone wants them, but you’ll blow up if you touch it, unless you’re a “bright,” also there are evil elves, because they want to bring back the Dark Lord, who the Nine Armies banished centuries ago, except there’s a prophecy, and blooded orcs have clan law, and … .
… Sorry, what were we saying? Landis dumps a lot of complicated backstory into this, but the movie might as well be wearily sighing, “Look, it’s all in the Dungeon’s Master manual, can we just get to the yelling and fight scenes now, please?” The problem with setting a familiar story in a foreign universe is that you have to establish the parameters of said universe or risk losing your audience. That’s world-building 101, folks. Bright does not care about that. Bright‘s attitude is closer to “fuck you for not somehow keeping up with our cool shit” before doing a lot of push-ups.
Meanwhile, Will Smith tries to alternately brood and charm his way through this thing the best he can, Noomi Rapace shows up wearing creepy contacts and hissing lines, action scenes are choreographed for maximum carnage but edited into indecipherable chaos, and the whole thing just gets tangled up in its own complicated mythology before tripping over its feet. Near the end, a character starts describing a third of the plot in excruciating detail to some “Magic Task Force” agents – and it still leaves you more baffled than when you started. This is what it looks like when good ideas go bad. A sequel, naturally, has already been greenlit. Go orc yourself, Hollywood.