REVIEW: Bright

The latest Will Smith vehicle, the “buddy-cop movie with a twist” Bright, is produced by Netflix for their streaming service. It got a lot of critical attention, mostly for the wrong reasons. Karen Han at The Daily Beast memorably referred to the LAPD-meets-monsters film as “a $90 Million Steaming Pile of Orc Sh*t“. Even more memorably, IndieWire critic David Ehrlich started his review by saying the movie was “so profoundly awful that Republicans will probably try to pass it into law over Christmas break.”

The idea of mixing Tolkien-style fantasy with the modern world seems to be a weird idea to a lot of this movie’s critics, but it’s already a well-established literary genre called Urban Fantasy. In fact one of the older manifestations of this in media was the role-playing game Shadowrun,  which not only had Urban Fantasy but combined it with the then-popular genre of Cyberpunk, in which the environment is collapsing, corporations ignore civil law and anybody who can’t make it in the wageslave world ends up taking quasi-legal mercenary jobs for said corporations because that’s the only way they can make a living. (Back in 1989 when the game was first released, that premise was called ‘science fiction.’)

If you, like me, grew up with that background, then the premises of Bright are a lot easier to accept. Perhaps the creative team (Suicide Squad director David Ayer and Hollywood writer Max Landis) grew up with that material too. The setting does seem to parallel Shadowrun in certain respects. For one thing, law enforcement is as corrupt As Fuck. Smith’s cop is pressured by his peers, sergeant and even Internal Affairs into getting his Orc partner fired, and when they get the opportunity, they even tell him to kill the guy while plotting to double-cross him and call the two of them casualties in a gang fight. OK, maybe that’s not as bad as the real LAPD, but it’s up there.

One difference between Bright and much of Urban Fantasy is that it’s assumed that fantasy races and magic have been around for at least 2000 years, ever since humans, Elves and other races fought against Orcs under control of “the Dark Lord” and all those races have been around ever since. By contrast, in Shadowrun, the return of magic to the world is a phenomenon less than a century old, and the resulting culture clash is a little more believable. One valid point that the critics do have is that the movie doesn’t do a good job of integrating this new element of “just like the real world only with Elves and Orcs.” Orcs are obviously second-class, but there are neighborhoods actually marked “Elves Only” in a way that ought to be illegal discrimination under American law. Again, it’s not well explained. One aspect that is similar to Shadowrun is that with the obvious species differences, human racial differences, while real, are not nearly as meaningful. I don’t know if they deliberately cast Will Smith’s wife as a white woman, but I wouldn’t be surprised.

There also seems to be a certain hate in the fan community for Landis that set up a negative perception of this movie. Max Landis is an opinionated and volatile figure in Hollywood, who by his own admission, “had a lot of behavioral and emotional issues” and is not prone to make friends with his behavior. His usual subject matter as a writer is the sort of fanboy stuff that turns off a lot of younger writers, with Landis coming off as the Daily Beast critic puts it, “a privileged white man (the son of John Landis) lacking any grasp of race relations.”

Of course that was all before accusations of misogyny over social media debates gave way to deeper accusations that Landis was a “ritual sex abuser.”   As it happens, Landis is the main producer of the BBC America series Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, and the second season of that show, like Bright, includes a team of heroes who have to keep a magic wand out of the hands of an evil psycho-bitch.

Like David Ayer’s previous work, the movie Bright is (literally) dark, ultra-violent, and foul-mouthed. The use of actors in funny makeup to comment on racial intolerance is a trick that’s been used many, many times before by the Star Trek franchise, and usually better. It’s especially egregious when you have a black protagonist being obliged to dispose of an enchanted creature as a pest, saying “fairy lives don’t matter today.”

So yeah, this movie has problems. But there are a lot of movies that aren’t technically “good” that I end up liking anyway. This was one of them. If you like lots of gunfire, this definitely scratches that itch. And as mismatched buddy cop movies go, this is at least as good as Alien Nation.

This is because, as uneven and impartial as Bright is in presenting the setting, overall it is much better than one would expect from a straight-to-Netflix production in terms of both production values and acting. Costuming and vehicles are appropriately gritty, and the makeup on the Orcs is very impressive, with Joel Edgerton (Smith’s co-star in Suicide Squad) as Jakoby the Orc having an amazing range of expression given that he is completely unrecognizable. And while the Fantasy elements are flawed for the reasons I described, they are still fascinating, with a lot deliberately unrevealed. In particular, the climactic battle where the evil cult leader tries to persuade the Elf girl to return to the fold is the most intense and best-acted scene in the movie, even considering that most of the dialogue is in a constructed language. It makes one wonder how this background would have been handled with a little more development.

Given that Netflix has already announced a sequel to this movie, it’s possible that there may be a deeper exploration of the setting. Presumably without Landis as the scriptwriter.

This investment in the subject is why I ultimately give Bright a recommendation, along with two other reasons: One, it was an inspired move to cast Margaret Cho as a police sergeant; two, it introduces the phrase “tittybar gunfight”.

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