Film Review: ‘Bright’ is Will Smith’s Darkest Hour

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Will Smith needs to make an independent film, like, now. His big budget decisions have been atrocious lately, with “Bright” only furthering that wrong direction he’s taking. David Ayer is a hit or miss filmmaker, and their collaboration “Suicide Squad” was his biggest miss, so why team back up? Ayer’s “End of Watch” is his finest hour, so returning to the world of the Los Angeles Police Department is promising, but then mixing in magic? And orcs? Come on. This looked like a mess from word one. Netflix deserves credit for funding this vision, but while it’s plus one point there, it’s minus several million for bad judgment. When no one else wants to finance a movie, sometimes there’s a good reason.

“Bright” is the latest example of the streaming service going all in on something that won’t be well received in the slightest. They’re banking on Smith’s star power pushing it to laptops worldwide, and that may be the case, but more time should have been spent coming up with something good. This bleak, loud, unsubtle mess plays like the lowest points from Ayer’s filmography, mixed with scribe Max Landis‘ strangest fantasies. An action fantasy outing that mixes crime story with a parable about race relations. If you think this is the crew to handle that, then Netflix has a bridge to sell you.

The plot is full of nonsense, but sure, let’s get into it anyway. There’s initial talk of a prophecy, but that’s extra nonsense. We start by meeting human cop Daryl Ward (Smith), who has the first ever orc police officer as his partner. Ward is bigoted against orcs in general, like everyone else in this world, but is damn near friendly with partner Nick Jakoby (Joel Edgerton) compared to everyone else in his department. The orc is a diversity hire and the as the first of his kind has nothing but enemies. Humans are racist against him and orcs see him as a traitor.

On this day, Ward is returning to work after an injury on the job, one everyone blames Jakoby for, leading to efforts to have him fired. Ward wants him removed as his partner, but not terminated, which causes extra tension. Still, they go out on patrol, which starts out normal but goes sideways quickly. Responding to a call, they wind up stumbling upon a “bright” (Lucy Fry), a special elf that can control a magic wand (yes, there are magic wands). She’s being persuaded by an unstoppable killer elf (Noomi Rapace) seeking to resurrect the dark lord. Not only that but at this moment, LAPD members have decided it’s time to kill Jakoby. As such, the partners end up on the run, with all sorts of things after them. Sound like nonsense? Thought so.

What did Will Smith see in this? Playing a bigoted cop sounds like a prestige play, but this is a fantasy flop in the making, so hardly a Best Actor contender. Hell, why did Joel Edgerton want to get under a ton of ugly makeup for this part? The former is solid yet unremarkable, playing this like a mediocre “Bad Boys” ripoff, but the latter gets saddled with a piss poor character. Not only is Edgerton buried in makeup, his character is oddly wisecracking and often terrible at his job. It’s just frustrating to witness.

Beyond Edgerton and Smith, the cast is a hodgepodge of forgettable players. The aforementioned Lucy Fry mostly just hides being Edgerton and Smith. Noomi Rapace chews her scenery like a vampire, but not in any enjoyable way In addition to them, we have the likes of Happy Anderson, Ike Barinholtz, Margaret Cho, Brad William Henke, Jay Hernandez, Veronica Ngo, Dawn Olivieri, Edgar Ramírez, and more. None of them leave an impression. Hernandez and Ramírez especially are wasted. By design, this is Smith’s show, for better or worse.

So little of this makes any sense. Most elements seem thrown in just to get a quick “cool” reaction from viewers, without any thought to logic. Take, for example, a shot of the LA skyline that features a dragon flying over the city. Are airplanes impacted? Why is this never mentioned? Sure, we’re dealing with an alternate world where elves are the wealthy elite, fairies are insects, and orcs are second class citizens. Logic is already at a premium. Still, some effort at explaining the world would have been nice. Instead, it’s just vague nonsense about wars in the past.

It’s starting to feel like “End of Watch” was an aberration for David Ayer. That gritty and realistic tale is a million miles away from what he’s done here with Max Landis. Ayer and longtime cinematographer Roman Vasyanov used to creatively shoot police action. Here, you can rarely tell what’s going on, but worse, you never care. Ayer’s bungled direction mixes with Landis’ sloppy script and the results are as bad as you’d expect. It’s a misfire across the board.

Netflix has been on a better run of late with their original features. Just look at “The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected,” “Mudbound,” or “Okja” for proof. They might even get some big Oscar nominations this year (though “Bright” is probably going to sneak in with a Best Makeup & Hairstyling nomination too). This, however, is the inverse. High concept, shoddily executed, and a waste of talent, it’ll be shielded from being a box office flop due to being through the streaming service. Hell, just this week it was announced that a sequel is coming. So, ready or not, get set for “Bright 2” in a few years. Sigh.

Overall, “Bright” is so poor a feature because it wastes a blank check to do something special. One can create a compelling cop drama set in an alternate universe, but you have to care about the world. This sort of gritty tale in a fully developed “Star Wars” universe, for example, would work. This, however, does not. Pay it no mind, as minds were rarely in use while making the film itself.

“Bright” is distributed by Netflix and opens in theaters and will be streaming on December 22

GRADE: (★½)