Starting bright, ending dim.
Looks like someone wanted to see an R-rated version of THE LORD OF THE RINGS.
BRIGHT is written as if J.R.R. Tolkien lived in modern-day Los Angeles, with its gun culture and gangland crime and racism and fairies.
If nothing else, BRIGHT is a semi-original idea (two cops saddled with protecting a girl on the run, with a McGuffin that every villain is chasing her for), filled with good dialogue, great production values and – action movie tropes that dismantle all the built-up love from the creative first act by the time we hit the incessant gunfire and Pretty Orange Explosions of the third act.
Daryl Ward (Will Smith) is a human LAPD cop, partnered with the first LAPD-appointed Orc, Nick Jakoby (Joel Edgerton). Their partnership is shaky after Ward was shot by an Orc and Jakoby couldn’t catch the perp. (Did the perp really outrun Jakoby, or did Jakoby let him go because it was a fellow Orc?) Tikka (Lucy Fry) is an Elf, on the run from her sister Leilah (Noomi Rapace), who heads a cult of Dark Elves preparing the way for a Dark Lord, with the aid of a “wand” – a sword-like, dripping-glowing weapon that only a “Bright” like Leilah can wield; a non-Bright touching the wand would mean disintegration… and Lucy has taken Leilah’s wand (swaddled in rags), to avert the Dark Lord’s coming.
And Ward and Jakoby find that EVERYONE wants what the wand can give – ultimate power: crooked cops, human gangs, Orc gangs, and Leilah and her super-cool mercenary Elves. While the LAPD pursue Ward and Jakoby on the run from every gang in LA, every gang is in battle with every other gang – and Leilah’s Elves – all hunting the wand.
Tolkien say: Not bad. Now make me care for all these dipshits.
Writer Max Landis (MR. RIGHT) and director David Ayer (SUICIDE SQUAD) have crafted a brave new world onscreen, the opening visuals dropping us furry feet first into a grimy, alternate-universe Los Angeles where Orcs inhabit the role of minorities (with their tagged neighborhood walls and low class jobs); Elves are the 1% (living in exclusive suburbs that tout “Elves Only” signage;) and humans are somewhere in between. Credit where it’s due, as the movie’s world creation is all-consuming; the filmmakers don’t skimp on the Orc prosthetics and makeup, the surrounding environment and tagging looks authentic, the Elves are dressed to the nines (Edgar Ramirez is Elf Kandomere, on the FBI Magic Bureau, sporting a three-piece suit on the job), and the tensions between the “races” is played as only Los Angelenos can, knowing that nothing changed with the election of Obama…
With a budget of $90 million, BRIGHT is the most expensive Netflix movie made to date, and they pull out all the stops: swearing is at a premium (in the first quiet coffee scene with Ward and his hot blond nurse wife, Dawn Olivieri, they drop more “fucks” just talking about their work day than most gangbangers); the hand-to-hand is creative, almost JOHN WICK (especially from the Elves); a solid nuanced performance by Edgerton through what looks like a stifling full-head prosthetic; Brad William Henke is intimidating head Orc Dorghu, and watch for studied dramatic performances by comedians Ike Barinholtz and Margaret Cho as cops; Tikka reminds us of Leelu in THE FIFTH ELEMENT, as she babbles in Elvish, until she just starts speaking English because the writer ran out of patience; a little TRAINING DAY subplot thrown in (David Ayer, director here, screenplayed TRAINING DAY – did he slap his writer upside the head for stealing his exact subplot from there?); and the arcs of the lead characters – the reconciliation of their partnership, and Jakoby’s acceptance by his race – are played poignantly, with lots of comedic asides as Ward and Jakoby turn up the Riggs and Murtaugh.
Even with good dramatic turns in the storyline, the novelty of the alternate-universe is lost somewhere in the second act, when BRIGHT is subsumed by its tropes. It may be derivative, yes, but could have still stood on its own two feet if it didn’t stoop to…
Magic – that’s great! – who cares? – fuck you!
Magic: The last resort of the mediocre storyteller. Because everything starts to – in the words of David Byrne – Stop Making Sense. One example: Leilah needs the wand to summon the Dark Lord. Why then, did she give it to an assassin, Larika, to hunt Tikka down? Wouldn’t you protect that thing with your life if you were that fanatic about it? Why chase someone who left your clan anyway, with a wand of ultimate power? Lend out a less precious weapon, dummy! And why wouldn’t Larika – now with a wand of ultimate power – make off with it? Only a Bright can wield the wand, so Larika must have been a Bright – how then, was she found crucified in the house where Tikka was hiding? So much for ultimate power…
Also, Dark Lord is all-powerful, yet needs Leilah and her wand to get to Earth. (Maybe Uber can help. It’s pretty magical how they can pick you up within five minutes from Anywhere.)
Ward, burned and bruised and bloodied from battle, sighs to Jakoby, “Fuck magic!” The ruin of better films than BRIGHT. So what started as LORD OF THE RINGS IN LA ends as ELVISH LETHAL WEAPON. Tolkien not spinning, but laughing.