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Urban fantasy has always had a slightly iffy relationship with mainstream appeal, as evidenced in recent years when even the usual box office reliability of Vin Diesel couldn’t make The Last Witch Hunter fly. The standard fantasy setting (one of the more amusingly oxymoronic labels modern pop culture has come up with) and – as of recent years – dark fantasy has managed to become quite the big deal. However, urban fantasy (and to an extent steampunk etc.) have struggled to get a foothold in a wider popular subconscious. One could hypothesize a mainstream audience struggles with these genres as they require you to engage with a version of the world you know with added fantastical elements rather than a straight up new world that requires less suspension of disbelief.
In any case, here comes Netflix to try its hand with another risk the likes of which modern Hollywood would be unlikely to make, in this case an $90 million dollar R-rated fantasy-cop movie hybrid. Hot off the heels of his success  with the financially successful and (sigh) Oscar-winning Suicide Squad, David Ayer re-teams with Will “we’re some kind of Suicide Squad™?” Smith for this story of socially-minded buddy cop action in LA. So far, fairly standard Ayer stuff but of course with the big difference here being this is an LA of 1%-er elves, magic wands and racially subjugated Orcs. Specifically Joel Edgerton as Smith’s rookie cop ”diversity hire” and the target of the other characters’ racism. If this all sounds a little bit like the Tarantino-y gritty reboot of Theodore Rex, well, you’d not be far off. Oh, and this is based on a Max Landis script. Naturally.
To wit; Ward (Smith) is begrudgingly paired up with the first orc on the force, Jakoby (Edgerton), but after Jakoby fails to stop a gunman from taking a shot at Ward, the working relationship between the two is tense. There is talk and vague threats of a returning dark lord and while out on patrol one night, the pair encounter a ye olde weapon of mass destruction in the form of a magic wand. With various factions in play and the weapon sought after, can they work together to stop it falling into the wrong hands yadda yadda. It’s a generic buddy cop story combined with a generic fantasy story but it happens they can drop n-bombs, you get the idea.
While far from terrible, the world building is not what it needs to be in order to sell something like this. If you expect the R-rated, hard-boiled cop drama to work with the genre elements then the world needs to be instantly believable. Alas it only makes it most of the way there. There are some nice touches where you can see Landis’ attention to clever detail shining through – fairies being equivalent to trash-raiding rodents or ‘Orc music’ being obnoxious death metal – which lend a level of credibility to the universe. What a film like this needed was John Wick style world building where the information was woven into the story, instead we get some heavy exposition in spots that quickly derail the gritty angle it’s (initially) working toward.
Ditto the discrimination subtext. Aside from being hilariously heavy-handed, it’s also a tad confused. Again, there are some neat touches like having all the casting of the human cops be consciously diverse so as to make their racism toward orcs seem more ridiculous. What muddles the message is having the orcs as a stand-in for everything. Initially you’re led to believe this is clear race thing (orcs are ghettoized, there’s a skin-based slur used against them etc.) but then one of the bro-crops attacks Jakoby over the fact that orcs chose to be evil. Their allegiance from birth is to a dark lord that their race swore fealty to thousands of years ago. This makes the discrimination subtext seems religious based. However, mixing the two metaphors undermines the power of both, which is to say nothing of the optics when your stand-in for “non-white people we treat badly” are, either way, portrayed as the literal monsters of fairy tales who are a bit mentally slow by nature. Not a good look, movie.
Aside from these little moments of interesting world building, the main “joke” seems to just be in making a straightforward cop drama but where half the characters are in orc makeup and people are throwing around D&D-like terminology. That’s an amusing setup but it can’t also be your punchline. Yet that’s what this feels like; the full length version of one of those parody films you catch glimpses of playing in the background of the real film. Its existence is the joke, it’s a one-note parody trailer stretched to a full two-hour movie. And by the end it’s morphed from End of Watch to Bad Boys, becoming truly irksome as its tired, testosterone-fuelled humour falls flat and Smith tries desperately to perform shtick he’s been attempting to escape from for a decade.
There are some fun action scenes. There’s a decent car chase and a wonderfully silly sequence set in a small convenience store where the bad guys are driving a car around while someone stands on the hood shooting guns and the one-dimensional, token “badass” women cartwheel around. It’s alright in a shlocky Underworld sort of way. But less fun. And more expensive. Yet somehow cheaper looking. This is another glaring issue; the design is ugly. Everything looks like Ayer fell so in love with the Croc and Enchantress designs in Suicide Squad – to be sure, two of the worst-looking aspects of that film – that he based an entire film’s aesthetic around only those two looks. That Oscar has a lot to answer for.
Had this film come out when Blade was at the peak of its popularity, it may have had some people falling over themselves to declare it the cat’s pyjamas. As is you have a fairly standard fantasy plot – complete with hastily added prophecy and the same narrative convenience Guardians of the Galaxy pulled re it’s explosive McGuffin – forced into a *very* generic and juvenile buddy cop film with aspirations of social commentary several leagues beyond its grasp. There’s some fun action to be had but it’s scarcely worth plodding through the ugly design, oddly cheap-looking effects and endless, boilerplate monologuing that occasionally sounds like the actor is making it up as he goes.
And can we give Noomi Rapace better stuff in 2018? Her main output this year were two Netflix movies (the other one was actually all right) and a wasted and unsatisfying cameo in Alien: Covenant. She deserves better.