“Bright” is the best Netflix original movie to date, and it absolutely deserves to be seen on the big screen, though don’t let that stop you from watching it home, as “End of Watch” director David Ayer’s welcome return to the cop-movie genre — following a disastrous wrong turn into “Suicide Squad” territory, of which we will say no more — fills an intense, grown-up movie niche that Hollywood once did so well, but has since replaced with formula-driven product.
That’s not to suggest that “Bright” doesn’t stick to the script (this is a Will Smith starring vehicle after all, the most satisfying of its kind since his “Bad Boys” days), though writer Max Landis is something of a pop-culture savant, capable of synthesizing everything from pulp-fiction fantasy to Shane Black action-comedies into a kind of wild and witty blockbuster super-weapon. His writing is familiar in the way that Tarantino movies are familiar (cleverly remixing familiar buddy-cop tropes with its “Alien Nation” premise), and fresh in the way that Tarantino movies are fresh (inventing original set pieces and new twists on old character types), which no doubt explains why Netflix paid so much (reportedly $3.5 million) for this screenplay.
Set in a parallel-universe version of Los Angeles, where humans live in harmony with Orcs, Elves and Fairies — well, maybe “harmony” isn’t quite the right word; more like “an uneasy balance” — this ambitious, yet astonishingly well-executed Netflix tentpole directly benefits from the way Ayer’s gritty, streetwise sensibility grounds Landis’ gift for creating an elaborate comic-book mythology. “Bright” hinges on the relationship between two reluctantly paired police officers: battle-scarred beat cop Daryl Ward (Will Smith) and his idealistic new partner, Nick Jakoby (Joel Edgerton), the first Orc ever allowed on the force. It’s a brilliant twist on an old dynamic that simultaneously supports an allegory about 21st-century discrimination so rich, you could create a college course dedicated solely to analyzing how it operates.
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Plenty of sci-fi movies aspire to the kind of franchise-ready world-building on offer in “Bright,” but precious few can pull it off. In fact, not since “District 9” has a movie taken the underlying tensions of a community (in this case, Rodney King-style police brutality and unchecked Rampart-esque in-fighting) and so creatively amplified them to suit an otherwise straightforward action plot. In an opening-credits montage that walks the tightrope between hokey and OG, “Bright” begins with shots of street-corner murals, graffiti tags and other signage that establishes the pecking order between races.
At the bottom are the Orcs, who dress like inner-city thugs, costumed in sports jerseys and gang colors up to their Shrek-like heads, which feature unique pigmentation (each one is unique) suggestive of elaborate facial tattoos (and hours spent in the makeup chair). Then come the humans, almost none of whom are white; though they tease one another about their ethnic differences, they seem to live in a kind of post-racial, post-gender-segregated equilibrium. And above that hover the Elves, an elite class who hoard the wealth from a private district, where they spend their days “running the world and shopping.”
It’s a complicated social system to establish, and yet, “Bright” does so without relying on traditional exposition, letting interactions between characters — whether it’s orders delivered by a Korean-American commanding officer, played by Margaret Cho, or the chill that arises when Jacoby takes a detour through Elftown — reveal how this hierarchy operates. Certain real-world racial biases still apply, and Ayer could catch some flak for presenting Latino gang members as scary pack animals, though it should be said that everybody is intimidating in this world.
In fact, “Bright” transposes fantasy elements commonly found in kids’ entertainment to the world of heavy-duty adult action (for instance, its Fairies are nothing like Tinkerbell, but foul-mouthed pests with razor-sharp teeth). In the tradition of Dennis Hopper’s “Colors,” Ayer has delivered another bloody, street-level cop movie, in which even the most beloved characters can be shot, and the law is just a loose suggestion that folks on either side freely ignore. It’s a formula he established in “Harsh Times” and has been incrementally improving ever since, and while we charitably assume that his studio-overhauled superhero foray doesn’t represent his true voice or abilities, it clearly gave him the confidence to tackle something as expansive as this — and a stylistic toolkit with which to push certain film noir elements farther, resulting in an ink-black world broken up by smoke and neon.
Meanwhile, Landis’ imagination seldom reduces to fit the indie-level productions he’s written so far (including his monster-movie inversion “Victor Frankenstein,” an inspired conceit that comes apart at the seams in the climactic stretch), but here, Netflix has ponied up a budget hefty enough to support the project’s significant visual and practical effects requirements. Pair that with a MacGuffin that springs naturally from this fictional world — everybody is scrambling for possession of a magic wand that, should it fall into the hands of something called a “Bright,” has the power to raise the Dark Lord and reopen a battle for the fate of the earth — and Landis has improved significantly on the clunky capture-the-flag conceits at the heart of most Marvel and Transformers movies.
None of this would have worked without the chemistry between Smith and Edgerton. Early on, Smith seems to be trying too hard, wrestling with some tortured inner conflict during domestic scenes with his wife and daughter (who disappear for the rest of the film), while Edgerton has the not-insignificant challenge of acting through heavy prosthetics. But once we get the chance to observe them together, the dynamic works in intuitive ways. Smith’s Ward is the cut-up and cowboy-confident hero, while Jakoby is too literal to make jokes and relatively slow to engage in conflict situations, especially those that would involve actually shooting someone.
Much of the plot involves running from one explosive standoff to another, while attempting to protect Tikka (Lucy Fry, whose ethereal looks and gibberish dialect recall Milla Jovovich’s character in “The Fifth Element”) from a ruthless Elf named Leilah (Noomi Rapace), all while evading corrupt cops, a “Men in Black”-style Magic Task Force (led by Edgar Ramírez), intimidating Orc gangs and a wheelchair-bound cholo who calls himself Poison (Enrique Murciano).
These confrontations are not for the faint-hearted, as Ayer mixes heavy weaponry with the occasional magic trick, showing a ruthless disregard for basic rights, be they human, Orc or otherwise. “Fairy lives don’t matter today,” Smith cracks in an early creature-exterminating scene, but the sentiment could just as easily apply to all races. “Bright” may seem cavalier about all that killing, but it sends a message without hammering it home at every turn. And at a relatively tight (by Netflix standards) 117-minute running time, it doesn’t overstay its welcome, but leaves you wanting more.