Project Power (2020)
What would you risk for 5 minutes of pure power?
Best described as a cross between 2011’s sci-fi thriller Limitless and any of the carbon-copy X-Men movies, Project Power is the latest sci-fi action-thriller to hit Netflix. While somewhat generic and mostly disposable, Project Power succeeds in one key area — it scratches the itch of anyone missing blockbuster entertainment at the multiplex, a drought that’s lasted for about six months, or the entire Summer Movie Season if you reside in the States. Although theatres are slowly beginning to reopen around the world, this Netflix newy gives audiences that summer movie feeling without having to leave your own home by serving up electrifying action, CGI razzle-dazzle, and fast-paced MTV-style editing, all wrapped up in an intriguing little hook.
Imagine if there were a pill that could grant the user superpowers for five minutes at a time. Well, this is precisely the case in a near-future New Orleans, with reports coming in across the state about individuals displaying unusual symptoms after digesting a new street drug known simply as Power, a pill that looks like a cold-and-flu capsule fused with a miniature lightbulb. Some are able to camouflage or render themselves invisible. Others have the ability to manipulate ice or can heal flesh wounds almost instantly à la Wolverine’s bullet immunity. And then there are those that can absorb fire and activate full-body flames like the Fantastic Four’s Human Torch (there’s that X-Men link again). The catch, however, is that you don’t get to choose your power (it’s unpredictable, a luck of the draw thing), and it’s only temporary (remember, it lasts for no longer than five minutes). For an unfortunate few, though, the pill just flat-out kills you (one guy combusts in a gruesome pool of blood and guts after swallowing it). So, as they say, results may vary.
The Power pill, as it turns out, is sending ripples through the criminal world, toppling police precincts, and causing all sorts of chaos on the streets. Naturally, this is keeping ‘bullet-proof’ NOPD Officer Frank Shaver (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) busy, striving to locate both the drug’s source and its suppliers — let’s just say this local law enforcer operates a little outside of his badge. He’s partnered with a street-smart teen named Robin Reilly (Dominique Fishback), who deals the drug to make ends meet, trying to aid her ailing mother. Frank is one of her regular buyers and uses the drug to level the playing field while taking out bad guys. Things get complicated, however, when an ex-military man named Art, a.k.a. The Major (Jamie Foxx), hunts down Robin’s cousin and fellow Power dealer Newt (Colson Baker, known professionally as Machine Gun Kelly), resulting in a fierce pursuit that concludes with Baker’s man-on-fire (Newt possesses the ability to self-immolate) overdosing and blowing up a good chunk of his residential apartment block — this is a kick-ass scene and wholly sets the grim and violent tone for what’s in store.
Newt, of course, leads Art to Robin, and that’s right around the time that Frank gets tipped off about Art’s involvement with Power, who’s suspected to be directly linked with the drug and its circulation. Although their motives and intentions don’t exactly align, unorthodox cop Frank, teen dealer Robin, and stubborn soldier Art form an uneasy alliance after coming together, the trio teaming up to try and stomp out the distribution of Power and the felons set to profit over the mysterious and dangerous new pill. ‘It’s about to get real noisy,’ Robin states, and she ain’t wrong!
Directed by filmmaking duo Henry & Rel (Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman), makers of 2010’s Catfish and 2016’s Nerve, Project Power is a non-stop adrenaline rush that’s high-wattage energy entertainment from end to end. It’s competently helmed and offers viewers a heap of slick, stylistic action sequences; a scene that sees Frank chase down a translucent, power-enhanced thief stands out, so too does a visually inventive scrap at a private Power demonstration for a potential buyer — we get a first-hand glimpse of how a live-action Frozen film might play out if things went horribly south for Elsa. Of course, being part superhero film, we’re hit with a bombardment of VFX in the climax, which honestly feels like a PS4 cutscene — who knew a pistol shrimp could be weaponized! But it’s all welcome, given that we haven’t seen this sort of flashy Marvel-DC-type fanfare for such a long time.
And while, sure, it’s fun to watch what an R-rated version of X-Men might’ve looked like — Newt, for instance, is covered with brutal burns after setting himself alight — Amazon Prime’s The Boys (2019) or James Gunn’s Super (2010) pretty much checked this box, showing us the darker, more brutal side of what life of a gifted crimefighter might entail. So, there’s not a lot of original content in here with moviemakers drawing on a stack of decade-old pulp clichés rather than trying their hand at something fresh or innovative — commentary on marginalized communities being used as human guanine pigs would have been far more impactful, as the subtext is there but just not unpacked. And that’s unfortunate.
Furthermore, the script by rookie writer Mattson Tomlin — who’s penning 2021’s The Batman with Robert Pattinson — fails to capitalize on the notion that people are essentially playing a deadly game of Russian Roulette (only with superpowers) when they swallow the capsule. Exploring the psyche of these characters would have been far more fascinating than the stock-standard ‘conspiracy drug drama disguised as a superhero film’ we’re dished out, Project Power becoming increasingly predictable the more it plays out. There’s also a great deal of exposition squeezed into the film’s 113-minute runtime, making the proceedings somewhat tricky to follow — especially for casual viewers who may know zilch about comic book tropes or conventions.
Being primarily a superhero flick, Project Power inherits some of the genre’s shortcomings, notably the paper-thin antagonists, who are given little to no motive or development. And while stars Jamie Foxx, Django Unchained (2012), and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Inception (2010), deliver strong performances, they’re both punching below their weight — Foxx is a previous Oscar winner and Gordon-Levitt a frequent Golden Globe nominee, but neither phones it in here. Fox imbues wounded soldier Art, who has very personal reasons for seeking out those who exploit and distribute Power, with the right amount of fury and intensity, displaying a cool, calm reflectiveness when required — but when is Foxx not great? Likewise, Gordon-Levitt, whose character Frank busts bad guys while sporting a New Orleans Saints jersey, is equally solid despite taking time to settle into the role — Frank starts out a little too macho-man-y and Gordon-Levitt feels a smidge miscast before finding his groove.
The real spark, and what helps set this film apart, is Dominique Fishback, The Hate U Give (2018), who gives a superb break-out performance as Robin, the young star balancing the teen’s attitude and upset, exuding genuine range, charisma, and confidence. More could have been done with the character of Robin, though, whose talent is her ability to rap; an early scene that sees Robin freestyle rap in a classroom shows, thematically, that true strength comes from within, the high schooler using hip-hop to find her voice and stand up for herself against a bullying teacher (albeit in a dream sequence). Oh, American rapper Chika, who contributes the song ‘My Power’ to the film’s soundtrack — which, by the way, is totally dope — also appears as a classmate of Robin’s who encourages her during her lyrical takedown.
A jacked-up, flawed but fun superhero thrill ride, Project Power’s biggest strength is its star-power. Clearly, Netflix keeps upping the ante when it comes to drawing in big-name talent with cast diversity now becoming a staple of the streaming provider — think of recent titles The Old Guard and Feel the Beat. If we are, in fact, smacked with a sequel (seems that most stuff coming out of Netflix is headed down this avenue anyway), let’s hope filmmakers better utilize the premise, and its unique take on superpowers, having already checked off world-building and all that monotonous origin stuff. Either way, for a measly subscription fee, Project Power is worth plugging into.
3.5 / 5 – Great
Reviewed by S-Littner