“Fairy lives don’t matter today!” snarks perpetually fed-up LAPD officer Ward (Will Smith) within the first few minutes of Netflix’s pricey fantasy-thriller “Bright” before proceeding to beat a sharp-toothed Tinkerbell type to death with a broom for the capital offense of raiding his bird-feeder.
It’s a cringe-inducing, almost admirably tone-deaf piece of dialogue to open a movie in the cultural climate of 2017, but what makes it particularly interesting for “Bright,” out Friday, is the film’s obvious view of the one-liner as a cinematic statement of intention.
Directed by “Suicide Squad” helmer David Ayer from a script by Max Landis (“Chronicle,” “Victor Frankenstein”), the movie’s set in an alt-fantasy inversion of modern-day LA, where magical creatures like elves and orcs live alongside humans, the former an ultra-glamorous upper class, the latter a much-maligned population still paying for the sins of their distant ancestors, who purportedly chose the wrong side in an medieval interspecies conflict one imagines looked something like “Warcraft.”
In this setup, the social commentary writes itself: often literally, as when first-of-his-kind orc police officer Jakoby (Joel Edgerton, unrecognizable under makeup that suggests both Bulbosaur and Drax from “Guardians of the Galaxy”) is referred to as a “diversity hire” and subjected to relentless abuse from his fellow officers, all of them human. Though he’s partnered with Ward, the two have tensions of their own to sort through, as is made evident by Ward’s livid response to Jakoby showing up on his doorstep to pick him up for work.
“Bright” is clearly enamored of its central conceit, which essentially suggests that versions of the Black Lives Matter movement and other similar social-justice tsunamis still took place in its fantasy reality — just differently, with humans still occupying socioeconomic standing slightly above orcs but without the more widely condoned species-ism it’s hinted was the rule of law just a few decades earlier (fairies, for their part, seem to have about as many rights as garden pests, despite appearing humanoid).
Especially with Smith in the lead role, this lays the groundwork for a handful of intriguing narrative provocations, from the two cops rolling past a squadron of officers brutalizing an orc in the street to their tense interactions with federal agents on the trail of an all-powerful wand (described as “a nuclear weapon that grants wishes,” natch). It’s this wand — a sparking, volatile plot MacGuffin possessed by a good elf (Lucy Fry) and pursued by an evil one (Noomi Rapace) — that drives Ward and Jakoby to a place of mutual admiration over the course of one long night, pitting them against not only that Big Bad but all manner of corrupt cops and inner-city gangs (both human and orc-ish) as they attempt to survive what started out as a routine night patrol.
Ayer’s played in the cop narrative sandbox before, penning the script for “Training Day” and later directing one very good brawn-and-badges thriller in 2012’s “End of Watch,” so it’s unsurprising that the film’s shootouts and chase sequences retain a taut, hard-edged plausibility even amid mythological mumbo-jumbo (a prophecy here, an interdimensional portal there) that constantly threatens to overwhelm the story. Aiding matters is Smith, who brings a note of grace to his police officer protagonist that pairs nicely with his tried-and-true knack for delivering devil-may-care wisecracks.
But ultimately “Bright” simply lacks the screenwriting smarts to capitalize on the social commentary in its setup that it so nakedly attempts to harness. Though its universe has been thought through at least visually, the plot is all adrenaline and no insight. That’s become abundantly clear by the third act, teeming with 10-story explosions, brutal firefights, and the kind of ridiculous heroics one might expect from the star of “Bad Boys.” As action entertainment goes, you could do worse, but for a story trying to shine someplace new, “Bright” generally operates at little more than an enthusiastic flicker.
Starring Will Smith, Joel Edgerton, Noomi Rapace. On Netflix, streams Friday.Isaac Feldberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter at @isaacfeldberg.