Bright (2017) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

Bright (2017)

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Officer Daryl Ward has the eyes of the world on him.  The latest hire, Nick Jakoby, is also the first orc police officer to serve the public through the LAPD.  As Officer Ward weighs his options for dealing with Jakoby, the two stumble onto a crime scene with a secret that will bring every element of the city against their survival.  David Ayer directs Bright, from a screenplay written by Max Landis, and stars Will Smith and Joel Edgerton.

Two things I want to establish before launching into the meat of my experience with Bright. The first, if you're feeling charitable, can be chalked up to stupidity as the credits for Bright leave studioADI - who did makeup and mask work - completely out of the list.  In the spirit of the season I'll go with stupidity, and hope that Netflix rectifies this as soon as possible.

The second involves Max Landis, a boy whose screenwriter credits are so embarrassingly conventional his brash social media presence doesn't qualify for "enfant terrible."  His screenplay for Bright has the immature germ that infects all his previous work, never graduating beyond genre colliding outlines lacking any spark of the anarchic creativity that fueled his father's films.  Max is also a (alleged) rapist, a (alleged) reality I have no reason to doubt.  Hopefully, this marks the last time something I review has a screenplay from Max attached, and he'll receive the (potential) punishment he (allegedly) deserves.

You wrote the script.

You wrote the script.

With those factors established - Bright is a David Ayer film and by this point I know what I'm getting if I watch Ayer.  He's a director of brash action, deeply suspicious of the systems of power that keep the oppressed from gaining traction in the United States, and has empathy for the people ground up by those systems.  Bright is something of a spiritual sequel to End of Watch with some of the punk flavor of Suicide Squad mixed in.  I didn't love Bright as much as either of those films, but I had a damn fun and interesting time watching it.

One of the reasons Bright isn't as strong as Ayer's previous films is how direct the allegorical structure is.  This leads to some wires getting crossed, as the elves of Bright are initially presented as Jewish caricatures in graffiti before Ayer shows they're the white upper-class metro chic stand-ins for this universe.  There's some clumsy dialogue to back this up, with human police officer caught up in their greed talking about how the magic wand Daryl Ward (Will Smith) and Nick Jakoby (Joel Edgerton) makes anything possible for them.  Other moments would have benefited from Ayer letting the physical realities of the characters speak for their conditions, like when Poison (Enrique Murciano) talks about how he wants the wand to make life bearable again while a quick glimpse of his paralyzed legs and colostomy bag say everything.

Don't have the body for it like I used to, but this was my kind of scene for a few years.

Where the dialogue is clumsy, the images are nervy and the music (done by David Sardy) is on-point.  A great example occurs mid-film when Ward and Jakoby are chased by gun-toting baddies into an orc punk club where the finely detailed points and rough skins of the orcs partake in a holy mess of flesh on flesh in the mosh pit.  Just as the assassins shoot their guns into the air, the orc singer on-stage keeps screaming away, and the club patrons near the shooting beat the snot out of the assassins while the music plays on.  The police bring the violence and corruption, and the oppressed community does what they can to immediately expel the threat to their lives.  It brings to mind what punk communities have to do to get rid of Nazi skinheads in their scene, and the moment is an inspiration for what unified people can do to put a stop to violence.

Bright's presentation of racism is unusually nuanced for a genre flick with orcs and elves.  One of Ward's white peers unloads a stream of hate for Jakoby, and it's clear from the tension between the two that the white officers of Ward's precinct are still harboring racist superiority over everyone else (backed, in part, by the elves who funnel wealth back to themselves.)  The lingering influence of the Rampart division, arguably the most corrupt in LAPD history, hits Ward in one chilling moment where he kills a hungry fairy with a quippy, "Fairy lives don't matter today," and Ayer lets the camera rest on the bloodied body just long enough to register the unnecessary murder folks in authoritative positions can get away with.

Ayer's more successful images show how power warps people into twisted monuments.

Edgerton, one of my favorite performers, smartly keeps his performance as Jakoby away from any specific cultural markers.  Bright already ran the risk of doing "orcface" with a white lead hidden behind makeup in a tale dripping with racist implications.  So Edgerton falls back on the humility that defines many of his best performances, presenting Jakoby as an awkward outsider trying to learn the syntax of cop speak and reach mutual understanding with his peers.  I also love that Bright gives Noomi Rapace the freedom to full throttle in her creepy power drunk performance as antagonist Leilah.

Ayer doesn't get away with everything in Bright as its most allegorically direct moment is also the most troubling considering who is behind the makeup.  There's no diminishing the image - an orc is lynched.  I'm hesitant to say when films "earn" a moment or not and, while Bright's examination of the power behind racism works, watching someone hidden behind makeup getting lynched needs more reasons to exist than as the shock image it's used as.  It's a moment I can't praise or defend because of the history of oppression behind the image, and since I'm still at odds with what the moment accomplishes I'm writing it off as one of Bright's failures.

Bright works, it just doesn't work to the point where I'll defend some of its choices.  I had a good time watching it, got caught up in some of its allegorical power, and left feeling more fulfilled than I expected.  It's a lesser Ayer film, but still one worth the time I spent watching.

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Bright (2017)

Directed by David Ayer.
Starring Will Smith and Joel Edgerton.

Posted by Andrew

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