Buddy-cop movies: you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all, am I right?
No, it turns out, not at all. Bright, Netflix’s most expensive film to date ($90M), directed by David Ayer and starring Will Smith and Joel Edgerton, redefines the genre by owning it, expanding it, and making it ever so much more complex. The results are beautiful. Maybe it won’t win awards for cinematography, though in terms of design and shot selection it’s competent in the way a favorite tailor is: you’re not getting anything too splashy, but you’re getting dependable results.
It’s beautiful because by taking a format that both Ayer and Smith are quite familiar with, covering that in every regard you’d expect, and then going so far beyond it with tropes unique to the other genres, they create something new and improved, and they succeed wildly.
Director: David Ayer
Rating: If it had one, it’d be R
Release Date: December 22, 2017
[Contains minor spoilers]
Bright is a reimagining of the world we know a la The Man in the High Castle, only instead of allowing a shift in actual historical outcomes (i.e. the Axis powers winning World War II), it posits that certain fantasy elements exist in the world and have always existed in the world. There are humans, elves, orcs, fairies, centaurs, and more. It doesn’t need to be explained, because the movie very quickly teaches that this has always been the way of the world. Oh, and 2,000 years ago, there was a dark lord, who was defeated, but not before orcs chose to fight on his side. Now, fast-forward to modern Los Angeles, and orcs are despised still for their long ago ‘snafu’ of choosing to fight for an evil overlord and the enslavement of all others. Understandable, perhaps, though historically, people move beyond most transgressions faster than that.
Will Smith is one half of our cop buddies (Ward, the human — the part he was born to play, baby). Early on, the two are very clearly not buddies in the least, as is the case with all good buddy cop situations. It’s only through grudging reluctance, if not outright hate, that any two good cops can become buddies. Joel Edgerton plays Jacoby, the Orc, in what is cleary the most emotionally resonant orc performance in film history (the bar was not set high — sorry Warcraft). The film dances through the tensions and conflicts born through racial strife, though in this case, human is human, regardless of skin color, while orcs and elves fill roles reserved for other stereotypes like gangsters and the rich Illuminati of the world.
Ward doesn’t like Jacoby, not only because he’s an orc and he’s his partner, but because Ward was shot by another orc with a shotgun, and Jacoby didn’t catch him. Everyone suspects Jacoby let him go because Orcs follow “clan-law” above everything else. However, Jacoby is also the first Orc cop in the nation, so there are all sorts of political considerations that characters cannot stop alluding to; it’s a sensitive situation, we’re led to know.
The film starts as a slow-build, establishing backstory through character dialogue, at times heavy on teaching the audience rather than being natural discourse between people. The slow build is supported by wonderful rapport between Smith/Edgerton and Smith/Everyone else. It’s pure Will Smith here, being his usual funny, better-than-you, self-righteous self. However, unlike in another Smith-Ayer pairing, Suicide Squad, Smith isn’t great in the midst of a film that makes no sense. He is at home in Bright, and the jokes hit on the money nearly every time. In fact, despite Will Smith looking the part of a 5-years-away-from-retirement-cop this felt more like vintage Will Smith than anything that’s been on screen in a long time. Sure, it’s a more worn-down version, lacking that vibrant exuberance palpable in The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, but it’s him. He may be older, but he’s back, and it felt great to see him having fun again.
So it’s a fantasy, buddy-cop drama? Big deal.
Yes, it is. Successfully melding the two was probably nowhere near as easy as the film makes it seem. Maybe it’s the right time for this movie, with popularity for surrealist programming like Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead at all-time highs, audiences are ready for a reimaging in this vein. But making it work with a story that supports it and visual effects to back it up took a team effort to create and probably a bit of luck too. Whomever pulled together the different production elements behind this film deserves a lot of credit, as good decisions were made.
Especially the stunt choreography, action sequence direction, and visual effects throughout. The film could have fallen flat if our buddy cops were hilarious, but none of this excelled. Fortunately, it did. Some of the action choreography was so refreshingly original as to leave you scratching your head, wondering why no one else has ever thought to do it before. Of course, it happens here and there, when someone goes beyond what’s average (The Raid) and audiences lap it up. In fact, adding an elfin element to the fight scenes allowed the use of parkour and martial arts stunts that wouldn’t make sense in a buddy cop movie unless you dragged in Jet Li (Lethal Weapon 4) or David Belle and Cyril Raffaelli (District B-13) to make it work. It was great, and the ruthlessness that felt natural to evil elves made the film feel real in unexpected ways.
The byproduct of expanding the fabric of the racial universe is that the film deals with real-world issues under the pretense of fantasy. In this, it’s only mildly successful. Bright never takes a hard stance on right and wrong in terms of racial issues or morality, although stereotypes are overtly present, and only partially broken down. There are times when characters attempt to change perception by explaining actions that are misconstrued through the lens of racial discrimination, but by film’s conclusion are in no way addressed. That’s fair. It’s a large issue and certainly too large for one movie to address in a way that would teach all peoples everywhere to move past perceived differences and embrace what makes us all the same.
Note that we’ve yet to address the elephant in the room. The 500 ton oliphant straight out of The Lord of the Rings. Magic, motherfucker. Yes, fantasy movies feature magic, and so too does Bright. In fact, it’s a magic wand that drives most of the film’s action. Basically, everyone wants it, yet our heroes are going to do everything they can to keep it from the hands of all bad guys (elves, orcs, gangsters, or corrupt cops) because the wand is like a “nuclear weapon that grants wishes.”
Despite being the item that drives narrative action and events, magic plays a minor role in the film. It’s there, it’s teased at being great, and yet, it’s mostly out of sight, out of mind. They tease at it. Hint at it, but it’s tell and no show. This feels like an intentional holding back to allow for further world-building and stories to be told. Expect sequels, and if Netflix follows its own formula, expect to hear about them some time in the next couple of weeks as this film will surely succeed and find massive metrics and analytics success through viewership and social media buzz.
Certain revelations are oft-hinted and clearly coming, while others were more craftily-delivered; I wasn’t the only one in the audience groaning when Ayer opted to revisit a moment from Training Day (which he wrote) in which Ethan Hawke’s character is saved from a gangster because he was revealed to have saved the gangster’s daughter from being raped. It’s the same play from the same playbook here. Only, this time the gangster keeps it real, and it felt like a call-back with a slight slap to the face for the audience believing Ayer would be so unoriginal as to steal his own thunder, carte blanche.
Bright is joyride that embraces tension while distributing treats via laughs, it’s real while fantastic and it revels in it. There’s little to complain about and much more to anticipate as Bright felt like an opening act to a much larger story. Can we have a fantasy series that plays out through films rather than episodes? I certainly hope so. Definitely stream this one over the holidays while friends and family are near.