Is Netflix's 'Bright' Actually the Worst Movie of the Year?
There's a part in Bright, Netflix's reportedly $90 million attempt at blockbuster filmmaking, where Will Smith answers a phone call in the rain and refers to himself as, "The motherfucker with the Wand." I laughed because Will Smith is still a charming performer and the exact cadence of the line -- Smith's cop character, you see, has recently gotten his hands on a highly destructive piece of magical technology, hence, he is the motherfucker with the wand -- sounds absurd. It's a moderately clever mix of tough-guy lingo and fantasy mumbo-jumbo, which is what you'd expect from a film its creators have been talking up as hybrid of Training Day and Lord of the Rings. It works.
Sadly, it's one of the only parts that works in this giant miscalculation of a movie.
In recent days, Bright, which currently sits at 29% on Rotten Tomatoes, has been pilloried by critics calling it "an absolute mess," "a colossal waste of time," and "The Worst Movie of the Year." If the idea of Smith, who also starred in the hilariously awful Collateral Beauty last holiday season, re-teaming with his Suicide Squad director David Ayer for a buddy cop action thriller with aspirations of being a parable about modern race relations didn't get you psyched, these reviews won't exactly send you reaching for the Apple TV remote. The creative team behind the movie appears to have gone into damage control mode, with Ayer tweeting back at a critic that the "highest compliment is a strong reaction either way" and screenwriter Max Landis distancing himself from one of the film's more groan-worthy lines.
But is the movie actually that bad? Does it really deserve to be compared to a cynical travesty like The Emoji Movie? Was it more boring than the Pirates of the Caribbean movie where Johnny Depp could barely feign consciousness on camera?
The short answer is no. Bright isn't a good movie -- most of the action is visually drab and story grinds through a series of predictable twists -- but there's something oddly touching about its devotion to being the most lunkheaded movie of the year. Ayer throws down the gauntlet within the opening moments when an exposition-dump is provided not by a newscaster on TV or an announcer on the radio -- no, in David Ayer's universe, world-building is accomplished by a quick cutaway to the Joe Rogan Experience podcast playing on a character's open laptop. Finally, you might say, a movie for people who love dark fantasy novels but also enjoy the taste of Creatine and dream of owning their own sensory deprivation tanks.
But after the opening, Smith's character Daryl Ward, a veteran street cop nearing retirement and coming off an injury-leave following a near-fatal shooting, climbs behind the wheel of a cop car with his partner Nick Jakoby (Joel Edgerton) and the movie descends into a by-the-numbers "one bad night" plot about a magic wand and an elf on the run. (Noomi Rapace is also around to play the villain who wants the wand for... some reason.) Yes, Jakoby is an orc -- the first orc to ever serve in the LAPD -- and tense, "shut up" filled banter between the two cops is meant to give the movie a touch of allegory to it.
Some context: In the world of Bright, Elves wear fancy clothes and live in a secluded, wealthy section of the city, while Orcs are demonized, oppressed, and live in more low-income areas. It's a clumsy metaphor complicated by the fact that Ayer doesn't really attempt to square the fantasy creature stereotypes with the racial stereotypes the characters occasionally alludes to (and, in some unfortunate cases, embody) at certain points. There's dialogue about "diversity hires" and orcs being good at football that's supposed to scan as funny -- or insightful -- but mostly just feels dumb. Not "fun" dumb either. It's dumb dumb.
If the movie ditched its attempts at profundity, it might have actually succeed as an act of wild-eyed bro-vado, like a Neil Gaiman novel written on the back of a UFC t-shirt. Unfortunately, Ayer can't even make this work as a remake of his own 2012 cop drama End of Watch. The dynamic between Ward and Jakoby is similar to the one explored in that movie, but he's drained it of the idiosyncrasies,flashes of wit, and sense of intimacy. (Any movie that has a scene where Anna Kendrick raps along to Cam'Ron is doing something right.)
Instead of retreating from the bloated set-pieces of Suicide Squad and returning to his gritty roots, he's attempted to split the difference between the two periods of his career and the clash of sensibilities never coheres. The cop scenes feel generic and the fantasy aspects are both confusing and over-explained. A "Magic Task Force" agent played by Édgar Ramírez walks into the movie with a chip on his shoulder and a ridiculous hair-cut, and then disappears for big chunks before reappearing at the end. Maybe he cast a vanishing spell on himself?
It's too bad because Smith shows flashes of his old self here. No matter how disappointing his recent films have been, he's still the star of Bad Boys, Independence Day, and Men in Black. When he yells at an orc to "take your fat Shrek-looking ass back home," it's easy to imagine a world where Bright doesn't feel like an awkward essay on race relations written by a junior varsity wrestler with a secret Dungeons and Dragon habit. If the movie had simply aimed it a little lower, it wouldn't have missed so many shots.