“Bright” is ostensibly a police thriller set in a world where magic exists, but it comes with a clever thought under its high-concept premise: what does racism mean in a world where sentient creatures are literally of different species? Humans of different skin colors would seem pretty unremarkable to even the most virulent racist when there are literal orcs living a block away.
Featuring a glittery grim aesthetic that smartly marries ghetto gangland Los Angeles and storybook fantasy, “Bright” is splendid start for Netflix’s foray into big-budget, blockbuster-style filmmaking. Scenes depict a contemporary LA populated by humans, an underclass of downtrodden orcs, and an elite ruling class of wealthy elves. Cops armed with Glocks and shotguns occasionally find themselves battling criminals wielding magic wands, which in their world are as dangerous as nuclear weapons and much more difficult to obtain.
Smith plays Daryl Ward, a seasoned LAPD street cop partnered with “affirmative action hire” Nick Jakoby (Joel Edgerton), the city’s sole orc police officer. “Are you an orc first or a cop first?” Ward frequently asks, drawing real world parallels that are easy to spot. With this question coming from the mouth of a black actor, the film sneakily allows for an examination of the politics of minority policing without demonizing the superior. Ayer and screenwriter Max Landis don’t subvert expectations so much as exploit them, and to though-provoking effect.
But “Bright” is entertainment, not a political screed, more “Lethal Weapon with Magic” than “Training Day at Hogwarts.” The plot kicks into gear when Ward and Jakoby discover a magic wand, leading to their pursuit by Mexican and orc gangbangers, crooked cops, evil elves, and a federal magic task force. Even as the plot framework hits familiar notes, Landis and Ayer’s reality-bending mythology, along with Smith and Edgerton’s rapport, elevate what is at its core a rote cop thriller to something that offers both familiar and fresh pleasures.
Ayer, who has wrote and directed films such as “Training Day,” “Street Kings,” and “End of Watch,” as well as DC’s successful but lame “Suicide Squad,” proves a pro with this material. A director with a fondness for hard, violent professionals not seen since Michael Mann, Ayer is at his best when the police are ultimately good and unceremoniously noble. Even in this fantasy setting, it’s easy to share Ayer’s affection for hard men with honest hearts.
Edgerton, his face buried beneath a pile of makeup, has the most fun as a socially awkward, good-hearted orc with something to prove. Ayer has a way with actors, and draws good work not only from a gifted thespian such as Edgerton, but even comedians in bit roles such as Ike Barinholtz and Margaret Cho. Noomi Rapace plays the primary antagonist, an angular, evil elf in pursuit of the wand, but she’s somewhat of an underwritten afterthought to protagonists on-the-run bonding.
The films pops with details that suggest something wondrous on the periphery. There’s a trip through the upper-class part of town where wealthy elves live a privileged life. Fairies buzz around houses, a nuisance requiring an exterminator or an angry homeowner with a broom. At night, a dragon is seen in the distant skies with the normalcy one would associate with a traffic helicopter. These details continuously add a richness to “Bright” that goes above and beyond the requisite scene-setting and into something obviously more thoughtful.
In forging intersections between real-world shootouts and fantastical elements, Ayer stages some thrilling action sequences. These work on a visceral level in no small part because of Ayer’s pacing, which efficiently alternates between buddy cop bickering and bonding with visceral bloodletting. A regrettable side-effect is that the plotting itself occasionally feels slapdash, introducing and then dropping elements such as Smith’s police-weary daughter, an attempted cop-killing, and an “extremist” magic cult. Even at two hours, it feels like Ayer left a lot on the cutting room floor, though in the interest of semi-brevity, he certainly made the right decision; “Bright” hurtles towards its climax like a magic missile.
Smith has praised Netflix’s willingness to spend megabucks on a adult-themed, conceptually offbeat movie with hard-R content. His enthusiasm is justifiable, as “Bright” is his best film in years, and a helluva fun one to boot. It looks like Smith has burnt out as a multiplex star, but if this movie is a sign of things to come, both he and viewers have found a good deal in the streaming giant.