Hop in, Lieutenant Ward. In Bright, Will Smith’s LAPD officer is riding shotgun with the first orc cop (Joel Edgerton), a bald hulk who looks like blue cheese crammed into a suit. Edgerton’s Nick Jakoby is a diversity hire no one respects. Not Ward or his fellow humans, not the fanged beasts who call Jakoby a sell-out to his species, and not even Jakoby’s own creator J.R.R. Tolkien, who once groaned, “I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations.”
That tremor you feel is Tolkien gnashing his teeth harder than a 5.4 earthquake at David Ayer’s hyper-segregated Los Angeles, where men have hated monsters for 2000 years, thanks to a war that coincidentally happened right around the time a crucified preacher became one of history’s most polarizing figures. Orcs were on the wrong side, Jakoby admits. But the grudge hasn’t healed. In the LAPD locker room, one of Ward’s colleagues brags his family killed orcs by the thousands back in Russia. Modern mankind has simply trampled them into a permanent lower class, a hellscape of poverty and bail bonds and suspicion. Guys like Ward know they should say the right things, assuring his young daughter, “All of the races are different — and just because everybody’s different doesn’t mean anybody’s better.” He’s lying. Just minutes before, Ward killed a sprite with a broom and quipped, “Fairy lives don’t matter.”
But hey, you can’t spell “law force” without “orc.” And you can’t spell “David Ayer’s twelfth cop movie??” without “Why develop? Is it a dare?” All of Ayer’s fixations are here: gruff dudes, dying palm trees, a know-it-all cynicism that can make his films feel like a drunk uncle cornered you at a wedding. Thanks to screenwriter Max Landis, a manic brain who usually dreams bigger than this, this time Ayer’s also dealing with elves, centaurs, and magic wands, all of which are trotted out with a world-weary sigh. Even a babbling elf-babe (Lucy Fry) modeled on The Fifth Element‘s Leeloo doesn’t bother with bizarro bondage. Instead, she spends the film in overalls.
The flatfoot and fantasy genres get along about as well as the uneasy partners at Bright‘s center. The combination seems to repel from itself like magnets, filling the screen with dead air. It’s a world without awe, and we’re stuck seeing it through Wade’s eyes, which are as tired and jaded as if Men In Black‘s Agent Jay barely survived Benghazi. Really, we’re seeing this world through Ayer’s eyes, and the director whose filmography swaggers that he is The Guy Who Understands The Streets, seems miserable that the only way he can score a $90 million Netflix budget is if he makes an orc call someone, “Homeboy.” The LA he’s created is so glum that I can only remember three smiles, one of them from Wade’s nurse wife (Dawn Olivieri) as she’s recalling how many people were stabbed at her hospital that week.
Ayer’s entire film has the feeling of being trapped in a cave. It’s almost too dark to see, even inside Wade’s ordinary ranch house (c’mon, take a hint from the title). Some of Ayer’s brashest choices feel the most dashed-off and insulting, like a strip club shootout that massacres nameless naked women, or a scene that ends with a murdered baby just because. Others are simply weird. A half-dead corpse collapsing next to an open fridge full of pudding. Fight sequences where people spin phony cartwheels in the air. A Los Angeles that rains.
The chaos has the geographical logic of a dream. The four major villains chasing after our heroes — two federal agents, a pack of crooked cops, an entire barrio of gangsters, and mercenary elves lead by a platinum-haired killer (Noomi Rapace) with the airbrushed placidity of Ivanka Trump — are devilishly good at finding Wade and Jakoby, but lose them as soon as they run around a corner. In one sequence, the duo storms through a bustling kitchen of orc cooks and burst into a room of their ostensible customers, a punk rock bar where none of the humans are eating a thing.
Yet, Bright has brief jolts of life. The sight of a man brandishing a rusty sword outside a pawn shop feels like an LA that might have existed had we skipped over the industrial age. An elvish execution that pins a woman to a tangle of thorns recalls the hood art on a lowrider. There’s a running visual gag where most of the orcs wear football jerseys — they’re built for tackling, but not a single orc is considered athletic enough to dunk in the NBA. “It’s not racism, it’s physics,” insists Wade. But the bit wears thin when the identical costumes make it even harder to tell who’s who in the shadows. A better joke is is a glimpse of an orc protest slogan that’s hocus-pocused NWA’s battle cry to, “Curse the police!” (Which sounds like something Will Smith might have said in the ’90s, back when he was still telling every interviewer his grandmother wouldn’t let him swear.)
Edgerton is actually pretty good, despite being stripped of personality in the second act. He enters the film as a moldy-looking doofus who wears sunglasses on the back of his head and keeps recommending people try melatonin. He’s not a doom killer; he’s a dork. When Ward snaps off the death metal on his stereo, Jakoby yelps, “That’s one of the greatest love songs ever written!”
It’s an intriguing throwaway line because as far as I could tell, the orc population is all-male, though a scattering of orc kids indicates they must spawn. Netflix has already green-lit a sequel, which means I’ll have another chance to see if orcs come in female. While I can’t say I have any interest in taking another tour through Ayer’s downbeat fantasy frogmarch, I’m slightly — slightly — curious to imagine a Bright that’s even more mundane, say a sequel where we also meet Jakoby’s spouse and watch them bicker about watering the lawn. Would I rather spend two hours watching an orc’s grass grow? Absolutely.