Sunday, December 24, 2017

BRIGHT (2017)

Urban fantasy is a genre of popular fiction in which mythological creatures coexist with humans in modern cities. There are two broad categories of urban fantasy, one in which the fantasy creatures hail from the horror genre: vampires especially, but also werewolves and all the rest. In the other category, you have the creatures of Tolkienesque high fantasy: elves, dwarves, orcs and so on. David Ayer's Bright, now streaming on Netflix, is one of the first large-scale attempts to put that second type of urban fantasy on screen. Like many an urban fantasy book, it uses the cop or crime format, giving us as mismatched LAPD partners Daryl Ward (Will Smith) and Nick Jakoby (Joel Edgerton), the latter being the city's first orc cop. Orcs are hated for their looks -- Nick is a "pig" even before he becomes a cop because orcs normally have tusks, though he's filed his down to fit in better -- and for their apparently treacherous role a long-ago war between the Alliance of the Nine Races and the forces of the Dark Lord. While this event explains centuries of human hate for orcs, it doesn't seem to have had any other major impact on the evolution of human society. Bright's LA is pretty much our LA, except that wealthy, beautiful elves live in their own exclusive enclave and some store signs are in non-human languages. Daryl Ward lives a normal suburban life (though his neighborhood is going gangsta and he wants to move out) apart from the occasional nuisance of a fairy buzzing around and being a pest.

Slices of life in Bright's America

There's a certain lack of imagination at work, but the point of the genre is the juxtaposition of the fantastic with the here-and-now, so there'd be no point in altering the here-and-now beyond recognition. More practically speaking, elves and orcs (or vampires) play the role in urban fantasy that Chinatown used to fill in pulp fiction: a community nearby and yet a world away, where people live by different rules from ours and often can get away with stuff we can't. Inevitably the world of urban fantasy invites comparison with the increasingly uncomfortably multiculturalism of here and now, and Bright directly invites comparisons when Daryl jokes, "Fairy lives don't matter today" when he swats a winged mini-humanoid pest with a broom. Nick Jakoby could be the oppressed minority or the distrusted refugee depending on your perspective. Despised by most fellow cops and society at large, he's also looked on as an "unblooded" sellout by the orc underclass. Daryl has even more reason not to trust Nick after getting shot by an orc gangster while Jakoby was preoccupied with buying his partner a burrito, and still more reason when evidence suggests that Nick let a suspect get away. It's sure to be a long, difficult day when Daryl returns to active duty, but neither he nor Nick could guess how difficult it gets.

David Ayer may have formed an alliance with Will Smith after the dubious triumph of Suicide Squad, but the main reason he's here is his history of cop movies, beginning with his authorship of Training Day. His job is to maintain a veneer of verisimilitude as the proceedings grow increasingly fantastic. To a great extent, that's simply a matter of keeping the dialogue salty, or just the way Will Smith likes it. It's also a matter of restraint, and to the relief of anyone who saw Suicide Squad Ayer resists many opportunities to go over the top with special effects. Max Landis's story heads dangerously close to Suicide Squad territory as Daryl and Nick become embroiled in the hunt for a rare magic wand -- only a "Bright" of any race can use one without dying explosively -- that an evil elf (Noomi Rapace) wants to use to bring back the Dark Lord. A good elf (Lucy Fry, giving a strong Fifth Element vibe without the sex appeal) has the wand, but not only her evil sister but corrupt cops and both orc and human gangsters want it, hoping for everything from limitless wealth to a cure for the injuries that have left one crime boss in a wheelchair. Daryl has to kill four cops to stop them from taking the wand and whacking Nick, and from there the episodic chase is on, taking the three protagonists through a half-orcish, half-Hispanic underworld while the federal Bureau of Magic (led by an elfin Edgar Ramirez) scrambles to keep tabs on things.

You may have read some brutal reviews identifying Bright as one of the year's worst films. I've only seen the headlines in an effort to avoid spoilers, so I can only guess whether the reviewers have their knives out for Smith and/or Ayer, expressing reflexive hostility to the very premises of urban fantasy, or flinching from the implicit comparisons to real-world race relations. In all fairness, Bright is no instant classic and suffers from moments of gratuitous violence and story-sustaining stupidity -- e.g., why didn't the corrupt cops just blow Daryl and Nick away when they had a golden opportunity, or why does a sniper let the three protagonists run to shelter just after taking a deputy down with one shot? --  but it's easily better than Suicide Squad, to set the bar admittedly low, and not half-bad on its own terms. Smith and Edgerton develop a decent chemistry and Ayer maintains a better balance of fantasy and grittiness than he did in his previous effort. He passes one crucial test late in the picture by never having the portal or whatever the evil elf was working on open, and never showing us the Dark Lord. For the type of story he's telling this time, he didn't really need that extra spectacle. The climax, with an inevitable but still implausible revelation of another Bright, may induce groans, but by then the film should have earned just enough good will from indulgent audiences to be forgiven that ploy. 

This shot features some nice widescreen composition, some admirably grungy set design, 
and Lucy Fry's peculiar curiosity about restroom hand-driers.

Bright has a better overall production design than Suicide Squad, with Ayer's frequent cinematographer Roman Vasyanov also improving on his last collaboration. The real difference, I suspect, was that there was no nervous mega-corporation looking over the talents' shoulders throughout this production, which leaves Bright looser and sharper than the Warner Bros.-DC extravaganza. At the end of the day it's still an overblown B picture, and maybe too reminiscent of Alien Nation for its own good, but I found it a diverting experiment in translating pop fiction into a new movie genre.

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