Review: 'Bright' Starring Will Smith, Joel Edgerton, And Noomi Rapace

Nobody bats an eye when a cop thriller, probably done by director David Ayer who has made his share of them, follows the familiar beats of mismatched cops in a conspiracy involving their corrupt brothers behind the shield. It's a tired, been-there done-that trope but we watch and we love it anyways. For me, they tend to be some of my favorite movies and Ayer, who also tackled other brotherhood-based flicks like Fury, Sabotage, and The Fast and the Furious, is one of the best at them. But you throw in some elves, a few orcs, a magic wand and suddenly everyone is up in arms. Bright, the new $90M blockbuster thriller from Netflix, may look ambitious like a cross between End of Watch and Warcraft, but its aims are as modest as any buddy cop flick.

Better yet, think Alien Nation. I remember my Dad loving that 1980s show about an LAPD cop teamed up with an extraterrestrial partner. Bright, which features a script by former hotshot writer Max Landis (Chronicle, followed by a bunch of stuff that really sucks), sets up its weird Lord of the Rings dynamic through a rolling hip-hop montage, spray painted images on the LA streets. It looks like a remake of Colors is about to pop off. By the time it's over we really know all we need to know. The elves are the 1%, the fashion, entertainment, and political elite; while the orcs are the downtrodden, hated by a society that blames them for a decision made thousands of years prior. They work menial jobs and form themselves into gangs just to survive. Meanwhile humans are just sort of stuck in the middle playing both sides, hoping to avoid a mystical war that they probably wouldn't survive. There are fairies, too, but as Smith's disgruntled cop Daryl Ward tells us after bashing one with a bat just for hovering around his yard, "Fairy lives don't matter today."

It's a bad joke that shows just how tasteless swapping race for species can be, but thankfully Bright keeps most of its humor of the familiar dysfunctional partners variety. Ward is a human who has been partnered up with Nick Jakoby (Joel Edgerton, unfamiliar until he starts speaking), the police force's first and only orc officer. The other cops hate him, and even other orcs despise Jakoby for being a sellout. There's something about him being "unblooded", a term that apparently means he was raised by humans and hasn't been initiated in orc ways or something. After being shot by an orc, who would later escape from a pursuing Jakoby, Ward doesn't trust his partner, either.

We've all seen this movie before. The partners will bicker and fight but a shared threat will bring them together. Okay, so that shared threat has never been a race of rebellious elves before, but so what? It's all the same, man. A literal magic wand is found and, in this world Landis and Ayer have created, magic wands are "nuclear bombs that grant wishes." There are supposedly three of them, but one is bad enough. This one is found in the possession of Tikka (Lucy Fry), an insane elf who is trying to keep it from the clutches of Leilah (Noomi Rapace), an eleven badass who plans to use it to bring about the return of the Dark Lord, a Voldemort-like figure everyone is afraid.  It's up to Jakoby and Ward to protect Tikka, keep the wand away from Leilah, but also from dirty cops and the gangs that want to use it for their own nefarious purpose. Meanwhile, a special division in charge of tracking magic artifacts (led by a snazzy, violet-haired Edgar Ramirez) is also on their trail.

Replace "magic wand" with "suitcase full of cocaine" and this is the plot of every movie David Ayer has ever done.

Bright is an easy movie to make fun of if that's all you're looking to do. The allegory it makes to prejudice, equality, and criminal justice doesn't always go over smoothly, but to its credit these ideas aren't hammered into us constantly. Instead the bulk of the film is focused on the chase, as Ward and Jakoby battle from block-to-block dodging foes of various species all with differing agendas. In that regard the action is quite brisk and exciting, with Will Smith delivering cool, off the cuff one-liners in a way that reminds you why he was such a huge star before he started taking himself too seriously. And Edgerton is just as impressive as the painfully earnest, naïve Jakoby. He's so much like Ethan Hawke's character in Training Day (which Ayer also wrote) you almost expect there to be some wild magical connection. It wouldn't have been out of the realm of possibility for this flick.

I didn't want to know how this west coast version of Middle Earth came to be. Every time the film grinds to a screeching halt it's when they try to flesh out the mythology. Rambling, overlong expository dialogue about Dark Lords and Inferni go over like a dead weight, and really have no bearing on what Jakoby and Ward need to get through. They just need to survive the night, history doesn't really come into play except to enlighten the audience, which is the wrong way to go about it. Landis' script, which Ayer apparently fashioned to make it more in his voice, is more successful when details are revealed in the flow of the action. We come to learn the term "Bright" refers to special beings who have the power to control magic wands, since they incinerate pretty much everybody else.

Ayer takes a lot of heat but he's good at what he knows. His Suicide Squad was killed by critics but fans dug it and the film was a box office smash. I have a feeling there will be a similar split with Bright, which Netflix has already deemed worthy of a sequel. It's imperfect and perhaps could have been more, but Bright successfully merges fantastical qualities with the cop movie clichés we know and keep coming back for.

Rating: 3 out of 5