Will Smith, Joel Edgerton, Noomi Rapace, Lucy Fry
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…If that phrase “machine-gun-toting, acrobatic elf ninja assassins” fires a neuron or two, you’re gonna have a good time…
What if one of the po-po in End of Watch was an orc? That’s the basic conceit of Bright, which blends director David Ayer’s usual Los Angeles cops ‘n’ crims concerns with the sort of high fantasy elements usually found in Middle Zealand: elves, fairies, magic wands and what have you.
Written by Max Landis, Bright follows uniformed officers Daryl Ward (Will Smith) and Nick Jakoby (Joel Edgerton), an orc, as they patrol the mean barrios of LA in a world where magic works (but is heavily regulated) and various fantasy races have carved out a place in the great melting pot. Elves are rich and presumably immortal, living in a Beverley Hills-alike enclave, while the tusked and scaly orcs are an underclass due to backing the Dark Lord in some epochal battle two millennia ago. In the modern day, orcs are viewed as thugs or worse, and Jakoby, the first orc police officer, is the subject of much attention and derision, both from the humans he works with and the orcs who view him as a traitor to his own kind (the racial politics are as subtle as a Mjolnir to the face).
Things go pear-shaped when they come into possession of both a magic wand – described as “a nuclear weapon that grants wishes” and Tikka (Lucy Fry), the runaway elf sorceress who wields it. The unlikely trio soon find themselves on the run from a whole panoply of opponents who want the wand for themselves, from corrupt cops to vicious gang bangers, with none so fearsome than Noomi Rapace’s evil elf cult leader and her host of machine-gun-toting, acrobatic elf ninja assassins. Can they survive the night?
If that phrase “machine-gun-toting, acrobatic elf ninja assassins” fires a neuron or two, you’re gonna have a good time with Bright. Ayer’s LA mean streets aesthetic aside, the influences on the film are fairly obvious: Terry Windling’s Bordertown shared world books, the Shadowrun roleplaying franchise, the feature film Alien Nation and its subsequent TV series, and more. Landis’s script takes the common tropes here and wraps them up in a standard action run ‘n’ gun plot, not doing anything too original with the ideas but handling them competently nonetheless. For Ayer’s part, he reaches for the most familiar tools in his box, giving us a tone that isn’t too far off that of Harsh Times or Street Kings – you know, apart from all the pointed ears and the odd dragon fly-by.
The action is great – a shoot out in a petrol station is the high point here – but the real fun is in the background details. The broad history of this parallel universe is handwaved, leaving the production design and narrative window dressing to do the heavy lifting when it comes to scene-setting: we get orcish graffiti and music, a nuisance fairy buzzing around a bird feeder, a Federal Department dedicated to investigating magical crimes, and more. There’s a snappy, glib “just go with it” vibe to the proceedings – if you question it too hard, it might very well fall apart, but at a glance it’s all a good time.
It helps that the cast never winks at the audience, treating the proceedings with, if not the somberness of a heavy drama, then at least the macho seriousness of a good action thriller (Bright is, it must be said, surprisingly and pleasingly violent and foul-mouthed). Men in Black veteran Smith is an old hand at this sort of thing, and the ethereal-looking Fry looks as at home here as she would at a medieval fair, but the standout is the unrecognisable Edgerton as Jakoby. Completely masked by latex prosthetics and tinted contacts, Edgerton really disappears into the role, offering up the most well-rounded and interesting character in the film, a misfit not aggressive enough for the orcs and too awkward for the human world, who is struggling to find his own place to stand. It’s a really great turn.
That it’s in the service of a somewhat disposable – but still very enjoyable – actioner is almost besides the point. For all the ballyhooing Netflix has done about the blockbuster budget ($90m+) and the big names attached, Bright feels very much like an opening salvo – a very pricey, very enjoyable feature length pilot. Hopefully a return to this world is on the cards sooner rather than later.