'Bright': Film Review

A genre mashup awkward enough to make 'Cowboys & Aliens' look like a stroke of genius.

Joel Edgerton is unrecognizable under makeup as the orc partner of human cop Will Smith in David Ayer's fantasy-based crime flick, a pricey Netflix original.

As genre hybrids go, you might be able to imagine films less promising than director David Ayer and screenwriter Max Landis' Bright — a Holocaust rom-com, perhaps, or a musical about zombies? In pairing the gritty, Los Angeles cop flick Ayer often makes with the fantasy world of orcs and elves, though, Bright is sufficiently weird-sounding that it all but begs viewers to come in armed with tomatoes and rotten eggs.

Alas, the finished product, though plenty embarrassing, isn't quite involving enough to merit the kind of pile-on mockery that greeted Ayer's DC Comics abomination Suicide Squad. Stars Will Smith and Joel Edgerton play it mostly straight here, doing their part to sell the dopey premise, but the screenplay offers viewers little reward for our own suspension of disbelief. Rumored to be the most expensive Netflix original film to date, the pic may well attract eyeballs on the streaming outlet. But its potential as a franchise-starter is laughably small.

Imagine an alternate version of our own reality in which humans and mythological creatures had always lived alongside each other. Presumably, that world would be rather different, in physical form and daily behavior, from the one we know. But as Landis' screenplay imagines things, this fantasy L.A. is nearly identical to ours except in two ways: Graffiti has orcs and elves in it, and downtown sports some Dubai-like architecture, thanks to the ultra-rich denizens of the "Elvin Special District," who spend their days "just runnin' the world and shopping." We occasionally see a centaur here, but if modern architecture (and plumbing) have made any accommodations for them, the movie doesn't know about it.

Human cop Daryl Ward (Smith) has the misfortune of being the partner of the nation's first orc policeman, Edgerton's Nick Jakoby. Orcs are hated by humans because, two thousand years ago, they fought on the side of the Dark Lord, or something like that. Nowadays, orcs (known by the lovely epithet "pigskins") are a permanent and violent underclass, and only the fear of bad PR keeps bigoted officials from booting Jakoby out of the L.A.P.D.

(The thuddingly obvious allegory has little to say about race relations in the real world. And given the way interspecies differences play out here, it's actually pretty insulting to human minorities — even if we ignore a repugnant quip that repurposes "Black Lives Matter" as a tag for an ostensibly comic killing.)

Actual magic seems to be pretty rare in this world, so it's a big deal when Jakoby and Ward arrive on a crime scene where rogue elves (led by Noomi Rapace, wasted here) have thrown violent spells around and incinerated some folks. A much bigger deal is that one has left her magic wand behind, inspiring a bloody race to obtain it that pits corrupt cops against gang-bangers and the aforementioned elves, who cartwheel through action scenes as if they were assassins cut out of The Matrix for being too unbelievably lethal.

Over the course of one of those very-long-days seen before in Ayer's Training Day and Dark Blue, Ward and Jakoby must protect both the wand and a very skittish elf named Tikka (Lucy Fry).

This grueling attempt to survive until they can safely rid themselves of the wand is fine, as far as it goes, but the supernatural elements are so poorly explained and implemented they make us wish we were watching some generic reality-based policier instead. Here's one of the few bits of dialogue that tries to make sense of the sketchy rules of Landis' mythology: Some movies identify their Chosen Ones with mysterious birthmarks or the like, but here, you know you're a so-called Bright "when you touch a wand with your bare hand and you don't explode."

That's far from the only clunker in the screenplay, but Bright spends less time imagining its world than it does having people bicker in all-too-familiar ways. It's possible that this screenplay holds a record for the number of times people tell each other to "shut up," but if not, those words are spat out often enough that it's hard not to guffaw when they pop up at a moment that should be dramatic. If only the guffaws came more frequently, or gave more pleasure, Bright might be worth watching.

Production companies: Trigger Warning, Grand Electric
Distributor: Netflix
Cast: Will Smith, Joel Edgerton, Lucy Fry, Noomi Rapace, Edgar Ramirez, Happy Anderson, Jay Hernandez
Director: David Ayer
Screenwriter: Max Landis
Producers: David Ayer, Eric Newman, Bryan Unkeless
Executive producers: Max Landis, Adam Merims
Director of photography: Roman Vasyanov
Production designer: Andrew Menzies
Costume designer: Kelli Jones
Music: David Sardy
Editor: Michael Tronick
Casting: Lindsay Graham, Mary Vernieu

117 minutes