Good Orc, Bad Cop


I’m not going to try and argue that 2017’s Bright is a good film. It’s not. It’s actually a pretty stupid and terrible movie. It came out at a point when NetflixOriginally started as a disc-by-mail service, Netflix has grown to be one of the largest media companies in the world (and one of the most valued internet companies as well). With a constant slate of new internet streaming-based programming that updates all the time, Netflix has redefined what it means to watch TV and films (as well as how to do it). was trying to prove itself as a competitor to the Hollywood studios on their level, and it snagged a big name star, Will Smith, and an A-list director, David Ayer, to give it a level of prestige. But Bright can’t shake the fact that it’s a Netflix movie and that means that it has the same flaws of every Netflix film: it’s poorly thought out, poorly produced, and feels like it was made to be consumed and then forgotten just as quickly. Hell, until I was looking for something in the fantasy genre to watch I’d forgotten this movie existed entirely. What does that say for a film that was viewed by 11 million families in the first three days of its release?

Normally I’d try to figure out what went wrong with a movie like this. Was it something in the production, or did the company not give the team enough money? Was it a star that exerted too much influence on the story? Was it a bad script that couldn’t be saved? Frankly, to all those questions I think the answer is yes. This is a film that feels exactly like the sum of its parts: a star with too much influence, a director making a film he’d already made before, a script from a talentless hack, all put together from a studio that doesn’t give a shit about the things it creates. The beast needs to be fed, and Netflix will consume all media and shit it back out. Whether it gets good critical scores or bad is incidental to whether or not the content is fed to enough of the masses. If people click, Netflix is happy, quality be damned. All of that put together gave us Bright.

Bright is set within a version of our world where elves and dwarves and other fantasy folk exist. The Elves are the pretty elites, the Orcs to downtrodden, hulking underclass, and humans ride in the middle, the majority everyman. As we learn, centuries before there was a great war between the various races and the Dark Lord, an evil conqueror who tried to take over the world. While the other races fought the Dark Lord the Orcs joined with him, picking the losing side in the conflict, and this has led to resentment and anger from the other races ever since.

Within this world we focus on Daryl Ward (Will Smith), a veteran LAPD officer just returning to the job after he was shot in the line of duty. His partner, Nick Jakoby (Joel Edgerton), is an Orc, the first ever admitted into the LAPD (or, as the film puts it, an “Affirmative Action hire”). He’s new, and was only just starting out on the job as Ward’s partner when Ward got shot, a fact that Ward blames Jakoby for (even though it’s clearly shown that Jakoby wasn’t at fault). Now Ward has a chip on his shoulder to his Orcish partner, and would love nothing better than to get rid of him the first chance he could get.

However, the two are going to have to learn to work together when a bad call on a bad night comes their way. When a disturbance at an apartment building lands in their laps, the two go in to discover some “fucked up magic shit”: a bunch of dead bodies, along with an elf holding a magic wand. Wands are powerful, and dangerous, and can’t fall into the wrong hands. Only a “Bright”, an elf capable of using them, should even have a wand. If anyone – dirty cops, gangsters, or the Inferni (evil elves) – got the wand, it would be like letting a three year old play with a nuclear bomb. Ward and Jakoby, along with the elf protecting the wand, Tikka (Lucy Fry), will have to do everything they can to keep the wand safe and away from an Inferni, Leilah (Noomi Rapace), lest she resurrect the Dark Lord.

The best thing Bright has going for it is there’s a rich, fantasy world hinted at in the movie. The centuries of strife for the Orcs could lead to interesting character dynamics between all the characters. The development of the Inferni could lead to a shift in the power dynamics between the Elves and everyone else. The idea that all of this history exists on Earth, that these creatures were here all along, for the whole of human civilization, could lead to a very interesting alternate history exploring how all of that affected every aspect of our history. There’s a lot that could be done with the concept of Bright, if handled properly.

The worst thing about Bright is that it does absolutely nothing with any of these interesting ideas. That rich history of Orcs and Elves and Humans basically amounts to references to the Dark Lord once in a while, and then a lot of shit getting thrown at the Orcs. The film is not at all subtle about using the Orcs as a stand-in for African Americans, dressing them up like gangsters and having the cops abuse them left, right, and center. And yet, even with a black cop in the lead role, the movie doesn’t have anything to say about the Orcs, police brutality, or racial politics in the United States. We have a world not unlike our own and the film doesn’t have anything to say about it at all, and that’s a missed opportunity.

But then, realistically, if we had Elves and Orcs and other fantasy species living on our world from before the rise of human civilization then the world of Bright shouldn’t actually look like our world. Small changes can lead to hugely different alternate histories, and introducing all these other species into our world isn’t a small change. Cultures would be different. Nations would be different. Everything, in essence, would be different. And that doesn’t even account for a massive, world-spanning war back in the Medieval era when all the culture came together to fight the Orcs and the Dark Lord. That’s a massive moment that, too, would lead to an alternate history that would look different from our own. Bright doesn’t bother with any of that at all.

Instead of thinking through the world it has devised, Bright wants to tell a buddy cop tale about a human and an Orc. In theory that would be fine – keep the tale local while hinting at the larger world to get us slowly acclimated – but a story like that has to be compelling. Bright, bluntly, isn’t compelling. Instead it’s a basic riff on your usual cop story, just with a magic wand in the mix. You could swap in a big bag of drugs, or a golden statue, or anything that every faction in the city would want, and you’d have the exact same story. Adding in a magical angle only makes sense if the film is going to do anything with it, but it doesn’t.

The film remains so disinterested in its own world building that the whole fantasy angle could be removed entirely and it wouldn’t be any different from any number of cop films from the 1960s. New guy of the wrong race comes to work for the police and everyone hates him until he proves he deserves to be there. It’s basic, staid, and expected. Making one of them an Orc doesn’t change anything aside from blunting any political discourse the film could have had. But then the film wouldn’t have had its flashy hook to get people interested because all Bright has is flash.

Frankly, the film doesn’t even understand who its hero should be. Will Smith’s Daryl Ward is the protagonist but he has no arc. He starts and ends the film in basically the same spot: five years from retirement, just trying to get by. Yes, he learns to accept his Orc partner, Jakoby, but the film doesn’t spend any time building that arc. He has one conversation with Jakoby in between action sequences and, suddenly, they’re the best partners ever. He doesn’t see Jakoby act more heroic than before and this helps him change his ways. He just decides, “hey, this Orc isn’t so bad,” after a few kind words. That’s all it takes.

The real hero of the film is Jakoby. He has an arc: a fallen Orc who never got “blooded” and earned the right to be a real Orc among his people, so he joins the police force to find a sense of belonging, and now he’s trying to prove himself to everyone while also defending the world. He has skills, from speaking Orcish and Elvish (two languages Ward can’t speak), and he knows magical history (so he can speak in detail about the Dark Lord, magic wands, the Inferni, and more). He’s also the altruistic one, the heroic one, the one looking to be the best Orc he can be. In any other movie he would be our focal point while his asshole partner would be played by a supporting actor. But Will Smith is Daryl Ward so the film flows around him and not Jakoby.

All of this for a tired and tedious action film. David Ayer can direct solid action, and even directed a pretty great cop action drama: End of Watch. That movie came out in 2012 and, I have no doubt, served as the primary reason Ayer got this directing gig. “It’s like End of Watch but with magical creatures. You’d be perfect for it.” But Ayer also brings his same style from End of Watch, the shaking, fast edit, multi-angle form of action. It made sense in that film which was trying for a certain kind of verisimilitude, like a found footage movie. It wasn’t always easy to watch but it did work in context. It doesn’t here, in a big, slick, Hollywood action film. Hard to watch is just hard to watch, and there are moments in Bright that are near incomprehensible. That’s on Ayer.

But the big flaws of the film, it’s story and characters and nothing really holding together, that’s all on scriptwriter Max Landis. The writer had, arguably, one good film, Chronicle, and then a lot of flops. As a legacy nepo-baby he was able to get into the industry on the power of his father’s name (his dad being director John Landis) and then he’s done very little with that foot in the door, writing one forgettable movie after another. Films like:

  • What if Igor was the hero of Frankenstein? (Victor Frankenstein)
  • What if a stoner was a secret agent? (American Ultra)

Even his most recent film, Shadow in the Cloud, had to be substantially rewritten by another scriptwriter and, even then, it was only tepidly received. He’s a hack, writing mash-up ideas, and it does, thankfully, seem like Hollywood has learned not to rely on him anymore (what with his last project happening four years ago as of this writing). If only it could have learned this lesson just a tad sooner.

Despite all this, I do have to admit that I’ve now sat through Bright twice and, both times, I found the film tolerably fun. That’s what happens when you have two solid actors doing what they can to save a film. The story is bad, the directing is subpar, and the characters are nothing special, but Smith and Edgerton, despite everything the script throws at them, have legitimate buddy cop chemistry. I would have loved to see a film with these two but under a different script and director. Maybe now that Ward and Jakoby were good buddies we could have seen a film that actually let them work their chemistry and solve crimes worthy of the duo. Some kind of Bright 2 that actually knew what the hell it was doing.

Oh, Bright 2 was canceled after Smith slapped Chris Rock at the Oscars? Well, we can scrap that too, I guess.

It’s easy to see why Bright has been all but forgotten. It’s a bad movie with a bad story and bad characters. It made a splash when it landed, and then sank, and now no one gives two shits about the film or its world. Fact is, though, that somewhere in all this murk there could have been a compelling film. A better script and a better director could have sussed out a better movie from all that we had here. But I guess we’ll never see that version of Bright. Frankly I don’t know if I should be sad about that or not.

No, probably not.