Coming in just under the wire for consideration as the worst movie of the year, this big-budget Netflix original mashes “Alien Nation” together with “Lord of the Rings” and “Training Day” to contrive a mess of apocalyptic proportions, a black hole of a movie that sucks all life from the screen.
In David Ayer’s ill-titled “Bright” (shot in such dark, murky tones by cinematographer Roman Vasyanov that it’s often impossible to discern what’s going on—though one shouldn’t complain when Andrew Menzies’ production design is so unattractive), Will Smith, giving his most slapdash performance ever, swaggers and shouts mindlessly through the role of Daryl Ward, a tough L.A. cop returning to work after being injured—the result, he believes, of having been paired with the department’s first orc policeman, inept Nick Jakoby (Joel Edgerton). L.A., you see, is the same urban dystopia familiar from Ayer’s previous movies, but now its population is even more diverse, including orcs, elves and fairies as well as various human ethnic groups. That simply magnifies the hostilities on the streets.
Max Landis’ plot kicks in when a bunch of corrupt cops try to kill off Ward and Jakoby but fail, and our mismatched buddies are left leaving a bloody crime scene in possession of a magic wand (no kidding!) and a terrified young woman named Tikka (Lucy Fry). They will be pursued by various forces—a rabid Latino gang led by a snarling wheelchair-bound boss named Poison (Enrique Murciano), an orc gang under beefy Dorghu (Brad William Henke), and an FBI team headed by an elf named Kandomere (Edgar Ramirez) and his assistant Montehugh (Happy Anderson). But their most dangerous pursuer by far is Leilah (Noomi Rapace), the evil Bright to whom the wand belongs; she wants to retrieve it so that she can employ its power in service to The Dark Lord, who intends to enslave the earth’s populace to do his bidding—or something like that.
What follows is a succession of confrontations with the various pursuers—including lots of random gunfire, fisticuffs, “enhanced interrogations” and—inevitably—plenty of chintzy special effects as the wand issues blasts of destructive blue light. There are also numerous deaths—one of a sheriff played by Jay Hernandez in a pointless cameo—and, apparently to balance them out, a couple of resurrections. It hardly constitutes a spoiler to reveal that the good guys win, the forces of evil are defeated, and the world survives, though having glimpsed the condition of Los Angeles in the movie, one must wonder whether it deserves to. The cascade of incoherent violence is sloppily thrown together by editor Michael Tronick, though to be fair it’s unlikely that anybody could have made much sense of Ayer’s footage.
“Bright” also tries to use the neighborhood-against-neighborhood scenario as the basis for commentary on the racial, ethnic, economic and—in this context—species prejudices that prevail in society, but frankly its treatment of such matters is so crude that no one could derive any positive message from it. Poison is such a revolting figure, for instance, and his band of followers so gruesomely brutal, that it’s difficult not to find the stereotyping appalling.
Smith ambles through all the mayhem and nonsense without the slightest nuance, beginning with a grotesque episode in which he cavalierly beats an annoying fairy with a broom and ending with the inevitable medal-receiving ceremony. It’s as if he’s letting you know he was in this turkey for the paycheck and nothing else. But he’s still identifiable, and therefore easily blamed. It’s easier for Edgerton, who’s encased in so much makeup that he’s actually unrecognizable. He does have to deliver his dialogue with those inverted fangs attached, though, which can’t have been easy, especially in his big, anxious admission to Kandomere at the end, which must have been a real chore to attempt in a single take. Rapace’s slinky villainess is comically dreadful, and Murciano’s murderous thug embarrassing, but Henke actually brings an imposing presence to Dorghu. As for Fry, she looks like a frazzled escapee from a bad rock band. Margaret Cho has a cameo as the boys’ desk sergeant, but nothing comes of it.
Netflix has made some interesting smaller films before now, but this attempt to match the major studios’ big action pictures is all too successful: it’s even more ghastly than most of them are.