Bright is big budget action at its worst

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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.

image A

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).

image B

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).

image C

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).

image D

There’s several problems with the camera work after the elves begin their killing spree:

  • Sudden changes in camera direction. The audience is only familiar with two areas of the club: behind the bar, and in front of the bar. Yet we see elves ripping apart gang members from new camera angles without any established perspective.
  • Few scene markers. Other than a string of lights around the glass near the bar, most of the club is indistinguishable; it’s all a hazy mix of neon blue and pink. A few more obvious visual markers would help clarify where everyone is in the scene.
  • Lack of character introduction. The killer elves appear without any clear point of origin. It’s probably meant to underline the elves’ superpowers, but it adds guesswork to who’s in the fight and in danger.

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).

image E

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).

image F

Lellah versus the SWAT team shows other issues with Bright’s cinematography and editing:

  • Lack of visual continuity between cuts. We cut from Lellah behind the club, to SWAT cops approaching, to Lellah jumping into frame and killing two cops with no visual connective tissue. Where did Lellah hide? Until the first cop dies it’s not even clear the SWAT team and Lellah are on the same side of the club. And we cut from cop to cop fighting Lellah with no greater perspective on the fight or how many cops remain.
  • Few wide shots. The camera sticks almost entirely to medium length shots with only enough room to squeeze in part of Lellah and a single cop. The audience has little sense of what the other SWAT cops are doing beyond the frame. The tight quarters also dampen any sense of Lellah’s physical speed or fighting skills.
  • Frantic editing. From the moment we see Lellah running to the back of the club to the point where the fight’s over lasts roughly 50 seconds. There are about 30 cuts in that time frame, an average of 1.67 seconds per cut. Fast cutting can mentally “speed up” the movement, but it makes individual one-on-one fights harder to comprehend.

At a glance this may feel like a minor, throwaway scene yet poor filmmaking here brings down the entire movie:

  • Ward’s team moves on unchallenged. By scene end Ward and his allies ran out of the back of the club to escape. However, in the moment the audience doesn’t know where Ward is relative to the elves or their immediate action other than a surprised reaction shot. That the elves would take out an entire gang yet ignore an armed Ward and Jakoby a few feet away strains credulity. How did they escape? Did they return fire? Nothing in the filmmaking suggests the team was ever in danger.
  • Lack of tension and suspense. Granted, super-powered killers make for a lopsided fight. It still doesn’t excuse what appears to be complete inaction by the gang members and SWAT team. Maybe the opposition put up more of a fight, but when a scene is edited to bits with little sense of direction, there’s no way to know.
  • Boring, repetitive combat. Even confusing fights can be interesting with the right physical presence (great choreography, great stuntmen, or both) and combat variety. Not so here – almost every shot of Lellah and her band of killer elves is an up close blur of a knife stab or kick to an anonymous target.

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.