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Bright is a flat out bad movie. Its screenplay has too much sophomoric dialogue and tonal whiplash. Unresolved plot threads abound. Any charisma from leads Will Smith and Joel Edgerton rarely registers above the film’s mediocrity.
Bright is also an action film with a ninety million plus budget, yet the shootouts are barely comprehensible. Fights lack a clear sense of continuity, editing, and direction. To examine how and why that is we’ll break down a single action scene midway through the film (watch the scene on Netflix; it starts at 1:01:36.)
Before we dive in, some context: Bright is set in present day L.A. with orcs and elves living alongside humans. Cop Daryl Ward (Smith), orc partner Nick Jakoby (Edgerton), and rogue elf Tikka (Lucy Fry) are on the run. Ward’s team has a magic wand that a street gang and separate group of evil elves lead by Lellah (Noomi Rapace) want for themselves. Naturally the gang and Lellah’s elves are sociopathic killers who won’t hesitate to destroy anyone in their way.
At the scene’s opening, Ward, Jakoby, and Tikka try to shake the gang in a strip club. The street gang enters and immediately opens fire (image A, top left, top right), cornering Ward’s group behind a bar. We see glass shatter based on the gunfire (bottom left) and cut to a wide shot (bottom right) with the shattered glass, Ward, Jakoby, and Tikka. The camera placement and blocking provides continuity; it’s obvious the gang has guns drawn on one side of the bar with Ward’s group on the other.
Ward and company jump up to return fire. At the exact same time Lellah and her evil elves enter the scene, and the entire gang turns 180 degrees away from Ward in reaction (image B, top left, top right). We reverse for brief shots on Ward and Jacoby (bottom left, bottom right).
As the elves begin to wipe out everyone in the room, the scene’s coherence drops rapidly. We open with a crowded medium shot of a elf killing off a few random gang members (image C, top left). Then another elf materializes out of the sky to jump on a gang member (top right). Seconds later we get rapid cuts of more mayhem from the two elves, from drop kicks (bottom left) to no-look handgun fire (bottom right).
While all this is happening, uber-baddie Lellah enters the scene. She stabs the gang leader a few times (image D, top left, top right) and throws him against a wall (bottom).
There’s several problems with the camera work after the elves begin their killing spree:
With most of the gang members dead we catch up with Ward, Jacoby, and Tikka running out of an exit in the back (image E, top left). Next, we cut back to elf leader Lellah on the run (top right) as she crashes through a window at the club’s back (bottom left and right).
After that we see a SWAT team approach the club (image F, top left). No less than a second later, Lellah ambushes them, killing two SWAT members in hand-to-hand combat (top right). A wide shot reveals four more cops apparently just hanging out (bottom left). The scene wraps up with several tight shots of Lellah spinning around, killing more cops (bottom right).
Lellah versus the SWAT team shows other issues with Bright’s cinematography and editing:
At a glance this may feel like a minor, throwaway scene yet poor filmmaking here brings down the entire movie:
Admittedly the problems in this scene are commonplace for big budget Hollywood films. Its cause is economics: bad action isn’t hurting box office numbers. Well tested properties and marquee stars mean more to the bottom line. Bright appears to be a case in point: an estimated 11 million got sucked in by the high concept setting with Will Smith all over the marketing.
Despite all this, there are glimmers of hope. Among major studio work, John Wick and Mad Max: Fury Road had wonderfully directed action; the former a box office hit, the latter a critical darling. And outside the U.S. there are many action directors going strong, from new (Jung Byung-gil’s The Villainess) to old (Johnnie To’s Three). Also let’s not overlook the lower budget, often direct to streaming market, which has a lot of promise (Ninja: Shadow of a Tear, almost anything else Isaac Florentine directs). Vote with your dollar; cinema deserves better shot and edited action.