Review: 'Bright' turns dull in attempt to discuss race politics

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Photo Credit: Courtesy of Netflix

In an effort to give the classic buddy cop film dynamic a fantasy makeover a la “Men in Black,” director David Ayer’s Netflix Original “Bright” presents racism in a magical world where mythical creatures and humans coexist. Despite an engaging premise, the film’s potential is lost in its over-the-top action sequences and magical elements.

Ayer immerses the audience into the struggles faced by Los Angeles police officers Daryl Ward (Will Smith) and Nick Jakoby (Joel Edgerton), the first human-orc cop partnership in the nation. Their working relationship is unusual in their stratified society, where elves enjoy the highest social position, while the beastly and primitive orcs occupy the lowest.

Though Smith seems to have settled into the typecast role of law enforcement, it does not indicate his acting ability. Smith’s performance as Ward is similar to his past iterations as a cop — snarky and ready for a battle of wits. Ward seeks to do the right thing in a reality rife with prejudice while trying to keep himself alive.

Edgerton’s performance as a non-human is engaging and remains human in nature, even as his face is rendered nearly unrecognizable by extensive makeup, prosthetics and CGI. Their chemistry as partners in distress is similar to many other buddy cop films, but remains unique with the addition of a species difference.

Ward and Jakoby eventually find an elf named Tikka (Lucy Fry) in possession of a magic wand. The heroes learn that a group of evil elves called the Inferni are after the wand for their own nefarious ends. Naturally, Ward and Jakoby team up with Tikka to stop them.

Upon first viewing, “Bright” reads as a tired and overdone allegory about prejudice. However, the film cleverly uses its modern fantasy setting to portray common instances of racism in our world. For example, Jakoby’s colleagues refer to him as a “diversity hire” behind his back. The humans he works with cannot see past his orc nature to see the person he’s trying to be. Despite the fact that Jakoby is not a human character, it is his struggle that feels human.

The decision to portray orcs as the token “diverse” race is an interesting artistic choice on the part of Ayer and writer Max Landis because it removes any ambiguity that the topic of race takes center stage of this film. In a not-at-all-subtle move, they have projected many different aspects of negative racial stereotypes onto a fictional race. The orc is all at once a criminal, a delinquent, an outsider and assumed to be incapable of speaking English. They represent every negative depiction of non-white inferiority.

Unfortunately, “Bright” is also an incredibly dense and complex film which has many moving parts, and the over-the-top action and magic-driven plot devices overpower the nuanced characterizations of Ward and Jakoby. These elements ultimately crash together rather haphazardly, and the messages of equality and diversity are nearly lost in the chaos.

The film is simply too fast-paced. There is a much broader story behind the one being told, and there is not enough time allotted by the plot to understand the world around Ward, Jakoby and Tikka.

“Bright” ultimately ends up playing like a garbled telephone call — you can kind of understand what is being said, but you aren’t quite sure why it is being said since parts of the “conversation” are missing. That is not to say it is a failure. The execution of “Bright” is not great, but it’s still a valuable work in the context of what it is aiming to do.

Rating: 3/5 stars