“Bright” is ostensibly a police thriller set in a world where magic exists, but it comes with a clever thought under its high-concept premise: what does racism mean in a world where sentient creatures are literally of different species? Humans of different skin colors would seem pretty unremarkable to even the most virulent racist when there are literal orcs living a block away.
Featuring a glittery grim aesthetic that smartly marries ghetto gangland Los Angeles and storybook fantasy, “Bright” is splendid start for Netflix’s foray into big-budget, blockbuster-style filmmaking. Scenes depict a contemporary LA populated by humans, an underclass of downtrodden orcs, and an elite ruling class of wealthy elves. Cops armed with Glocks and shotguns occasionally find themselves battling criminals wielding magic wands, which in their world are as dangerous as nuclear weapons and much more difficult to obtain.
Smith plays Daryl Ward, a seasoned LAPD street cop partnered with “affirmative action hire” Nick Jakoby (Joel Edgerton), the city’s sole orc police officer. “Are you an orc first or a cop first?” Ward frequently asks, drawing real world parallels that are easy to spot. With this question coming from the mouth of a black actor, the film sneakily allows for an examination of the politics of minority policing without demonizing the superior. Ayer and screenwriter Max Landis don’t subvert expectations so much as exploit them, and to though-provoking effect.
But “Bright” is entertainment, not a political screed, more “Lethal Weapon with Magic” than “Training Day at Hogwarts.” The plot kicks into gear when Ward and Jakoby discover a magic wand, leading to their pursuit by Mexican and orc gangbangers, crooked cops, evil elves, and a federal magic task force. Even as the plot framework hits familiar notes, Landis and Ayer’s reality-bending mythology, along with Smith and Edgerton’s rapport, elevate what is at its core a rote cop thriller to something that offers both familiar and fresh pleasures.