According to some industry reports, Netflix spent over $90 million on its action-fantasy “Bright” — a bargain for a blockbuster, but a huge chunk of change for a film that will barely receive a theatrical release. So strictly from a showbiz perspective, “Bright” is already one of 2017’s most fascinating films, if only because it shows just how much subscription streaming services will spend on splashy original content in order to become an essential part of a media consumer’s diet.
As a piece of entertainment, though? “Bright” is only interesting for how confused it appears to be in regard to its potential audience. Screenwriter Max Landis and director David Ayer have taken a premise that could’ve worked reasonably well as a family-friendly television series — mismatched buddy cops busting criminals in a fantastical version of Los Angeles — and have turned it into a violent, vulgar two-hour movie, weighed down by heavy mythology.
Costars Joel Edgerton and Will Smith do what they can to give a dark, dreary story some star power, with varying degrees of success. Even under thick layers of makeup, Edgerton is likable as Nick Jakoby, a monstrous-in-appearance but mostly sweetly dorky Orc, who gets a job as an LAPD beat cop in an alternate modern-day L.A. where fairies, elves and the like live uneasily alongside humans.
Smith struggles to apply his usual roguish charm as Daryl Ward — a veteran policeman and Orc-hater who’s been partnered with Jakoby via the department’s diversity program. Smith tries and fails to coast by with a smirk and a wink, harking back to his crowd-pleasing “Men in Black” and “Independence Day” characters.
Ayer and Landis haven’t made it easy for their leads. “Bright” smartly jumps right into the action, showing Ward and Jakoby going about their everyday crime-fighting business, all while suffering the racist jeers of colleagues and neighbors. But because there’s so much to explain about this world, the actors have to shoehorn a lot of back story between all the insults.
The bulk of the film has to do with a magic wand the partners stumble across, right as they’ve become the targets of multiple assassination plots — from within the department and without. While fending off everyone who wants them dead, Ward and Jakoby find themselves in the middle of an ancient conflict involving dark elves (such as Leilah, played by Noomi Rapace), “bright” elves (such as Tikka, played by Lucy Fry), and an order of human warriors who’ve been waiting for generations to step in once the truce between faerie folk and mankind collapses.
The whole concept of a “Lord of the Rings”-style multi-species war playing out in 21st century L.A. is a pretty good one. Undoubtedly Netflix would love for “Bright” to launch a franchise, giving whomever writes and directs future installments the room to explore this universe, with all of its prophecies, rituals and subcultures.
But frankly it’s hard to imagine “Bright” inspiring anyone to want to see or make a full-blown series of films. Aside from a few nifty ideas and the occasional amusing or exciting scene, this film is a chore.
Landis has shown some wit and imagination with his past screenplays for “American Ultra” and “Mr. Right,” but the script for “Bright” — reportedly rewritten heavily by Ayer — is laden with glib and corny attempts to reference real-world racial animus. (Warning: It only takes about 10 minutes for the line “faerie lives don’t matter” to pop up.)
As for Ayer’s direction, “Bright” has a lot more in common with his thudding, at-times-incomprehensible “Suicide Squad” than his respectably lean tough-guy movies “Fury” and “End of Watch.” The film’s look and tone is so aggressively grim that the title almost seems like a joke.
Ultimately, the biggest problem with “Bright” is that it squeezes nudity, profanity and blood into the kind of dopey adventure that should be aimed more at adolescents — right down to its simplistic lessons about tolerance.
The movie’s on-screen message is, “If you act like my enemy you become my enemy.” But acting like an R-rated fantasy blockbuster doesn’t magically transform “Bright” into “RoboCop,” “Blade Runner” or any of the other adult-oriented genre classics that’d be a much better use of TV viewers’ time and money.
Running time: 1 hour, 57 minutes
Playing: Regency Bruin, Westwood