Directed by: David Ayer || Produced by: Eric Newman, David Ayer, Bryan Unkeless, Ted Sarandos
Screenplay by: Max Landis || Starring: Will Smith, Joel Edgarton, Noomi Rapace, Lucy Fry, Edgar Ramirez, Ike Barinholtz
Music by: David Sardy || Cinematography: Roman Vasyanov || Edited by: Michael Tronick || Country: United States || Language: English
Running Time: 118 minutes
Netflix’s first original blockbuster was the critical failure yet commercial success that was David Ayer’s and Max Landis’ Bright. To put the film’s reception into perspective, the movie was savaged by most professional and amateur film critics as one of 2017’s worst films and an embarrassment for the maturing streaming network. It has only been two years but many Netflix original movies since its release, and time doesn’t look like it’ll treat the movie any kinder in hindsight. On the other hand, the inverse relationship between its critical and commercial reception is uncanny even by blockbuster standards; the film holds an 84% Audience Approval on Rottentomates.com compared to a 27% Critical Approval, remains one of Netflix’s most streamed programs, and earned a sequel despite its $90-106 million budget. Whether this film would’ve achieved any financial success outside its streaming platform (re: audiences going to a physical theatre and paying money out of pocket to see it) is another question, but the fact remains that Bright gave (most of) the people what they wanted, and may in fact start a franchise.
Even more interesting has been the popular and critical reaction to the film’s bizarre fantasy-crime drama premise, an alternative present-day Los Angeles (LA) where various mythological creatures (e.g. orcs, elves, fairies, dragons, etc.) exist alongside humans. The premise itself is not so interesting given its hamfisted portrayal, which is part of the film’s numerous problems, but the sheer production values of this film dedicated to such an off-the-wall idea is something I find fascinating. Taking into account the aforementioned critics-versus-audiences dynamic — a classic situation in film culture, I might add, though as I said, often not to this degree — and you have a modern filmmaking controversy worth discussing.
The tone and style of Bright, to me, are best summarized as Training Day (2000, written by Ayer) meets Dungeons & Dragons (D&D, 2000) meets Crash (2004). Take the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) crime drama of the former, mix it with the cheesy fantasy of D&D, then toss in half a cup’s worth of heavy-handed social commentary from the latter, and you have the basic framework of Ayer’s Bright. Now, Ayer’s problem with that summary is that only one of those three is a good movie, but the upside is that two out of those three are highly entertaining.
Much of my pleasant, albeit facetious rapport with this film is related to my affection for David Ayer as a filmmaker. Inconsistent though he may be, he’s a true auteur with consistent filmmaking vision from project to project, including the aforementioned Training Day, End of Watch (2012), and Fury (2014). I even enjoyed his work on Suicide Squad (2016), studio meddling notwithstanding, and appreciate his grungy, working-class attitude towards law enforcement and gang violence on film. His California crime dramas, as messy as they often are, feel like the product of someone who actually grew up in South Central LA and was trained in combat. That combination of authenticity and sloppiness is his main source of appeal for me.
Returning to the subject of Bright, the best and worst of Ayer’s and screenwriter Max Landis’ work is on display. The general structure, pacing, and climax of Bright’s plot are fine, involving a magical wand (this diegesis’ equivalent of a weapon of mass destruction) discovered by LAPD officers Will Smith and Joel Edgarton, who must then keep it out of the hands of various bad actors. Our co-leads’ performances and development are also decent — I appreciate how Smith’s one-liners and “””attitude””” tone down as he ages, gracefully — and I cared about their fate, so as a generic action-thriller, the movie functions.
What’s distracting about Bright is its aforementioned gonzo diegesis, which is what most people who get paid to write about movies hated about the movie. Ayer remains as capable an action-director as ever, while Landis’ sense of humor melds with the gangster-jargon and Smith’s lead, but the simplistic portrayal of fantasy tropes in an otherwise gritty cop drama are so simplistic, so silly, and so lazy. Overlooking how Bright’s LA feels identical to real-world LA despite thousands of years of fictional backstory, the placement of different mythological races into generic socioeconomic classes (e.g. elves are posh bourgeoisie, orcs are inner-city communities of color, “dark elves” are terrorists, humans are anything in between, etc.) feels both (a) hamfisted and (b) somewhat racist in and of itself. Furthermore, the history of this quasi-fantasy world is frequently mentioned but always glossed over, making that backstory feel somewhat pointless, while the movie’s dialogue ranges from cringe-inducing to downright hilarious. I can’t decide whether the line, “Fairy lives don’t matter, today,” is funnier than, “Once with the Dark Lord, always with the Dark Lord!” On the other hand, lines like, “How the fuck can you make a shootout awkward?” and, “Drive it like you stole it!” by Will Smith aren’t bad.
The level of entertainment one mines from a movie like Bright is comparable to how seriously they take something like Alien vs. Predator (2004) or Batman vs. Superman (2016). To use a tired cliche, you have to “turn off that part of your brain” that questions basic diegetic and/or storytelling logic in order to appreciate the visceral thrills of Will Smith blowing away LA gangsters with a 12-gauge during a chase sequence. Bright has enough production value and effective camerawork to distract you from the ridiculous “world-building” of its screenplay, and when combined with Smith and Joel Edgarton’s buddy cop-banter, is an alright adventure by story’s end. It’s more self-aware than something like Bird Box (2018), in any case.
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: Sloppily written yet hard to resist, Bright is the perfect debut blockbuster for Netflix because and in spite of David Ayer’s charismatic yet haphazard execution. Its premise is so hysterical as to provide a feature-film’s worth of unintentional comedy, which its leads handle about as well as their supporting cast fumbles it. The only thing more shocking than the binary critical/audience reactions to this movie is that the movie got made at all. Welcome to Netflix.
—> ON THE FENCE. I don’t know how to talk down to audiences who legitimately thought this was a good movie any more than I know how to defend it against film buffs who hated this as much as Man of Steel (2013).
? If nothing else, you have to admire the audacity of the Netflix executives who greenlit Bright: The core conceit of this film—a violent, R-rated cop movie that just so happens to have fantasy creatures in it—is so batshit bonkers that it’s kind of impressive that they made it, let alone spent $90 million on it.