On magic wands and shootouts, David Ayer's monotonous cop stories, and the self-hating fantasy of Bright
Director: David Ayer
Screenplay: Max Landis
Starring: Will Smith, Joel Edgerton, Noomi Rapace, Edgar Ramirez, Lucy Fry and Happy Anderson
Not rated / 1 hour, 57 minutes / 2.35:1
Available on Netflix
(out of four)
Give David Ayer a gun and a badge and a street gang and he will give you a scuzzy L.A. cop movie. Give David Ayer myths and monsters and prophecies and magic and he will give you ... a scuzzy L.A. cop movie.
As a declaration of his auteur bonafides, Bright is decisive. While many have referred to it as a fantasy extension of Bad Boys, it's more distinctly of a piece with End of Watch, Sabotage and Harsh Times. (Do with that what you will.) More importantly, it affirms a filmmaker of moderate skill and minimal imagination. Ayer steps into a world of fairies, orcs, elves and centaurs, and his bright idea is to give us a bunch of jaded Los Angeles beat cops getting into shootouts with Latin American gangs, just like every other David Ayer movie.
Allow me to illustrate with a brief sequence of events. The film's key piece of background is that our (human) hero, Ward (Will Smith), took a bullet in the line of duty, an incident that he (and the rest of the force) largely blames on his orc partner, Jakoby (Joel Edgerton). The film's first big plot piece involves a reported disturbance, which leads to a shootout. Other characters arrive shortly thereafter, a situation develops, and it is resolved by one character shooting everyone else. This leads to an altercation with a neighborhood gang, which leads to a car chase, which escalates into a shootout. Our heroes find their way to a nightclub ... which eventually erupts in gunfire. You guessed it: a nightclub shootout has commenced! Not long afterward, we find ourselves outside a convenience store, except ... shooting starts! There is a shootout. There is an escape, but that only leads to another major character getting shot. At the end, there is more shooting.
Don't get me wrong - there are scenes in Bright that do not revolve around, react to, build toward, get settled by, or otherwise involve the discharging of firearms. Several of them! And I am certainly not knocking a good old-fashioned shootout as a viable weapon in anyone's cinematic arsenal. But for a film that concerns ancient races of magical beings, in a story driven by the existence of a magic wand so powerful it's described by one character as "a nuclear weapon that grants wishes," I cannot imagine a more boring direction for any scene than "people start shooting guns at each other."
Early in the film, a character dramatically waves a sword around in the middle of a city street, and in retrospect it's almost a cruel tease for a version of this movie that actually cared about its genre concepts. Guns? Man, I got thousands of movies giving me guns already. You know how many movies have nuclear weapons that grant wishes? None, that's how many. You'd think a movie with that as its centerpiece could find something more creative to do with the weaponry in the world it inhabits.
Not for one second is Ayer swayed by the sheer power that his whole movie is based around. Nor the transformative personal truth - that one of our two main characters will be a revealed as possessing magical powers (such a person is referred to as a Bright) - that the script very consciously builds toward. Nope, it's all virtually incidental to the man behind the camera. If the nuclear magic wand were instead a suitcase full of cash, Bright would more or less be the same movie. This movie only gets, or feels, fantastical or otherworldly when it absolutely can't avoid it, and even then Ayer seems to be holding his nose - while simultaneously rubbing ours in the gritty realism of his aesthetic.
A hybrid of contemporary high-fantasy and cop drama is, I suppose, as workable a hybrid concept as any other - although the particulars of these cops, their partnered relationships, and the neighborhoods they inhabit are so specifically Ayer-ish that it's hard to tell what screenwriter Max Landis' original vision actually looked like. What it became - however it became it - is a movie that standoffishly resists its own conceit for two solid hours. It begrudgingly accepts that it includes elements of fantasy - but it's not happy about it.
I'm not saying Bright is in open rebellion against its genre - because that would require it actually giving a shit - but simply looking around in each frame reveals an ambivalence toward it. Though the film primarily involves itself with the humans, orcs (this society's downtrodden) and elves (its wealthy, elite, privileged), that's only the start of it. On the periphery we see other folkloric beings - like centaurs, in a scene or two; maybe goblins or trolls as well, although most of them are brushed past with such apathy that I can't specifically recall. The film's second scene involves Ward killing a small, temperamental, iridescent fairy that's been flying around his house and being a nuisance to his wife.
What we only realize after the fact is how little that fairy's existence matters - not in a political sense (despite Ward's "Fairy lives don't matter today" zinger), but within Bright's actual framework. The scene establishes that fairies exist in this world, but the movie isn't remotely interested in exploring, y'know, the fact that fairies exist. It doesn't open up its world at all - which is as good as saying Ayer didn't open himself up to it. The centaurs, the fairies, even the presumably germane orcs - they're not established features, nor characters; they're set dressing. And mostly in the background, too. The film is constantly reminding us of its vision of Los Angeles (which for all intents and purposes is real-world, present-day Los Angeles), and of the criminal underworlds and dirty cops and mysterious figures of power who inhabit it. And it does so explicitly at the expense of its other side - its magical side, its supernatural side, its mythological side - which it steadfastly refuses to examine except in the cursory ways the plotting demands.
What does that leave us with, fantasy-wise? Why, a big dumb obvious metaphor, of course. A big dumb obvious metaphor about race relations and class divides and institutional bigotry and privilege and prejudice. It somehow manages to be both too on-the-nose specific and not specific enough - the former because it's so childishly obvious what is standing in for what (neither Ayer nor Landis shows any delicacy with the film's allegorical architecture), and the latter because it never uses that symbolism for any real purpose or commentary. It goes out of its way to point out its metaphorical totems, but has no idea what it actually wants to say with them. The whole thing - even down to some basic plot points - plays like a live-action version of Zootopia, with even less subtlety and way less purpose.
Even as a cop movie, which is all it really wants to be, Bright is pretty lousy. But its apathy toward its actual material makes it so much worse. At least if the film had leaned into the fantasy side, it could have camouflaged its symbolism better and nuanced it within a less literal-minded context. The more you stray from reality, the more you can blur and blend your meanings and your messages. But Ayer leaned heavily into the real-world side. He is the worst kind of fantasy filmmaker: the kind who blatantly doesn't want to be one. Let him make his cop movies. Those are bad enough. But at least those movies only ruin one genre at a time.