Review: Bright

I watched Bright tonight. I thought it would either be a very interesting feature film foray into urban fantasy, or else a terribly dumb and clumsy effort at genre fiction. It is both.

Bright has a lot it wants to say about race and class, both in the interactions between humans and in the interplay between the fantasy races. Sometimes this is almost thought-provoking; a lot of times it is cringe-worthy and feels a little like it’s dabbling with racist tropes.

Bright has a fun story, a contemporary world where fantasy creatures have always been a part of it. We can tell from very early on that this movie is just one story in a much larger world, but where it begins feeling like a vignette, it ends feeling like the beginning of an epic franchise. What we know about the larger world feels like an evolution out of The Lord of the Rings, mixed with the franchises it birthed, like Dungeons & Dragons. I thought it was fun. I hear people who were fans of Alien Nation (which I’ve never seen) or of Shadowrun (which I’m only familiar with in passing) find this film to be very derivative. And it is, in the way that most fantasy is, but an urban fantasy movie–no, scratch that, a fantasy movie in general that isn’t The Lord of the Rings or Star Wars or Conan the Barbarian–is awesome to see.

Bright wants to be a police procedural with heady topics including police corruption and racial discrimination, but it quickly spirals off the rails. This is, I think, entirely a good thing. Bright quickly resolves some of the initial problems fueling the first act, leaving only animosity between partners and begrudging cooperation that we know will turn into friendship, and the plot becomes this ridiculously over-the-top, endless chase sequence, with plenty of gunplay and martial arts and magic.

The magic in the film is so powerful and so cool and so scary, too. It’s described early on as a nuclear bomb that can grant wishes, and that feels flippant and maybe a little trite, but boy do they establish just how MAGIC magic is by the end of the film. I was wowed. In a contemporary world, our heroes have no chance where magic is involved. Magic is not commonplace, and it’s not particularly welcome in that world, and it really fucks things up.

The chase sequence element is less enjoyable. The McGuffin of the Scared Elf Girl and the Magic Wand being pursued by Bad Guys is simple enough, and it works–and it’s fun to see those Bad Guys quickly multiply, as basically every corrupt cop and gangbanger and death cultist wants that wand (and, just as fun, sometimes the Bad Guys are more complex than just Bad Guys). There’s also a federal magic task force that seems sinister, and it is, after all, in that covert black ops way that film federal agencies typically are, but they’re actually played straight for once, and while they might be morally gray, these federal agents more or less stick to the side of good, even if they’re always a few steps too slow. Okay, all of the above is positive, so what’s my problem? Well, the chase and fight sequences themselves are often dark and choppy, with frequent disruptive cuts and bad camera angles. Most of the film is set at night, in one long, intermittent chase sequence, and most of the best action scenes suffer from this poor cinematography and poor lighting and poor editing.

Another weakness is the acting and dialogue (the film’s written by Max Landis and directed by David Ayer). None of the characters are stand-out, except perhaps Joel Edgerton as orc cop Nick Jakoby, who is so earnest and awkward and loyal. Will Smith is Action Movie Will Smith, consistently enjoyable even when reading lifeless lines, but shockingly lacking in charisma; his character, Daryl Ward, actually lacks many of the virtues that Jakoby possesses, and in a scene that feels a bit forced and inauthentic, he admits that he used to be a better man. That one scene, and you’ll know the one when you see it, is pretty painful, highlighting the film’s flimsy characterizations: Jakoby and Ward basically talk at each other, responding with only vaguely related statements that are meant to be a heart-to-heart. There is no true character development, except in mythic/archetypal terms. The mythic elements of the film are at times unexpected, but at times flatly predictable. The film will make sure you never miss a single beat of foreshadowing.

Look, I get it. Bright is not great art. But it was a hell of a lot of fun, and I’d like to see more (and hopefully better) movies set in this franchise, or at least in this genre, especially if they star Jakoby and Ward getting up to even weirder shit (the end of the film dangles some possibilities). It’s a deeply flawed movie, but it was sort of charming, in an awkward way. I could see this settling into a sort of cult movie status, like the oddball fantasy film Willow before it, even if the franchise being set up here fails to take off.

I liked Bright, even while I get why so many people–professional critics, in particular–don’t. It’s not great, and it’s not terrible, and I think if we were all being honest the average rating would probably hover somewhere between 5 and 7 out of 10.

Let’s close this review out with our protagonists reflecting on the events of the film, in the movie’s characteristically cheesy dialogue:

“Hey, Nick.”

“Yeah.”

“Fuck magic.”

“I don’t know, I still think it’s kind of cool.”

That’s Bright for you. Fuck it. But I still think it’s kind of cool.

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