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Bright

Year: 2018
Production Co: Clubhouse Pictures
Studio: Netflix
Director: David Ayer
Writer: Max Landis
Cast: Will Smith, Joel Edgerton, Lucy Fry, Noomi Rapace, Ike Barinholtz, Edgar Ramirez, Jay Hernandez

Here's a classic Hollywood example of the narrative surrounding a movie threatening to overshadow any interest in the movie itself. Bright made a big splash in the news way back when Netflix announced they were paying $90 million to make it, a record for the streaming service at the time.

The release date approached with almost no fanfare except for a few billboards overlooking LA and early reviews were scathing. But Netflix (which to this day doesn't release any figures about viewer numbers) insisted it was a massive hit, and the fact that they greenlit a sequel straight away seems to prove that claim was more than just corporate chest-puffing to hit back at haters.

If you've read the reviews you might be expecting a train-wreck of epic proportions, and if you're not that familiar with Ayer's smaller scale back catalouge and only consider him the Suicide Squad guy, you might be priming yourself for a giant turkey.

Instead it's pleasantly enjoyable, maybe because your expectations are indeed so low after Suicide Squad. It's also one of those movies that has two chances to rise and fall – the concept and the execution.

The concept is like a handful of writers spent a few days in a writer's room challenging themselves to mash two genres together that couldn't traditionally be further from each other in tone – the orcs, fairies and magic of fantasy and the searing grime of a gritty LA cop drama with all the attendant gangs, drugs, language and gun violence.

Looking back, that might be what a lot of critics hated about it, but even though the story's asking you to go with it on something that at first seems difficult to swallow, the execution is entertaining enough to carry you along.

Ward (Smith) returns to work after a near-fatal gunshot wound he sustained when he and his partner Jakoby (Edgerton) happened upon a robbery in progress. Nobody – least of all Ward – wants to be partnered with Jakoby, but he tries to make the best of a bad situation.

Bright does something interesting because the story on paper (two cops who have to go on the run to reach the centre of a conspiracy about a weapon all the local gangs want to get their hands on) could have been done completely straight without fantasy elements, but they're there, and most importantly, they work. In the beginning, Ward's wife insists he gets rid of a pest hanging around their bird feeder and rather than a squirrel or a rat, it's a gossamer-winged fairy. His partner Jakoby is an orc. The grimy, sodium-arc lit gang neighbourhoods are populated by Jakoby's kind while Beverly Hills is mostly home to elves who drive nice cars and dress in fancy threads. And the weapon everybody's after is a magic wand.

After Ward and Jakoby find the wand in a home in South Central where they've just been in a gang shootout, Ward's comrades want to give into temptation – take the wand and enjoy the spoils of all its power, shoot Jakoby dead because nobody really wants him on the force, say he died in the firefight and all get away with it.

At first Ward's conflicted. He knows IA wants Jakoby out too and it would solve everyone's problems. But when Jakoby tells him that he followed the suspect in Ward's shooting but let him go because he wasn't the right guy, Ward realises human cops (most of whom are inherently racist against orcs) would have just shot the kid dead – Jakoby proves himself to be better than that.

Even though he's the one stuck with an orc for a parnter, Ward's conscience gets the better of him. He and Jakoby kill their colleagues in defending themselves and have to go on the run with the young street elf Tikka (Lucy Fry), who harbours the wand. She's hiding it because she knows about those who want it most, a deadly Elvish gang led by Leilah (Noomi Rapace) whose two minions take hand to hand combat to a whole new level above what we usually see in movies with martial arts and fighting tropes.

The race is on to figure out who to trust, get the wand safely into the hands of the two federal agents tasked with such duties and get out alive. Faithfully following both cop movie motifs and those Ayer does so well (and often), Ward and Jakoby have to drag Tikka through a strip club, car chases, shoot-outs with thugs and scary gangland initiation rites where they go up against hockey jersey and medallion-wearing hoods, and of course Tikka will turn out to be the strongest of any of them, a Bright (hence the title) who can wield the wand without it destroying her.

Bright seems to be kind of a direct response to Suicide Squd as far as David Ayer's experience making movies goes. If Netflix offered him $90m to do make any kind of story he wanted in his signature style after the marketing executive meddling he withstood from DC and Warner Bros last time, why wouldn't he?

It's hard not to see a racial subtext in Bright with the elves as the rich and the orcs as the Mexicans, blacks and immigrants who make up the gangs and criminal element. Setting it in an alternate universe where humans and Tolkeinesque creatures coexist (the downtown LA skyline even has a few extra buildings) seems to be an audacious step on the surface, but deep down it's just Ayer doing what he's always done best. Pleasantly and surprisingly, it works.

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