Review: Project Power is just fine, as big dumb Netflix movies go

Jamie Foxx, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Dominique Fishback chase a pill that gives you superpowers around New Orleans. As you do.


PROJECT POWER (Henry Joost, Ariel Schulman). 112 minutes. Available to stream Friday (August 14) on Netflix Canada. Rating: NNN

So there’s this pill. You take it, and for five minutes you have a superpower. Maybe it’s invisibility; maybe it’s super-strength. Maybe you have bulletproof skin. Or maybe you explode. Would you take it? And if you did, what would you do with those five minutes?

That’s the very simple, awfully enticing premise of Project Power, a superhero-adjacent action movie that serves as this month’s big dumb Netflix movie. While it may not be one of the best things you’ll see this month… honestly, neither is it the worst.

As we quickly learn, the super-pill – released into New Orleans by a generic criminal kingpin (Edgar Ramirez) for the usual insidious reasons – isn’t entirely random: a person will manifest the same power every time, no matter how many pills he or she might take. But you don’t know what your specific power is until that first dose.

No, it doesn’t make a lot of sense, especially once we find out where the powers come from, but this is a movie about a pill that gives you superpowers for five minutes; if you buy into that, you may as well accept the rest.

Anyway, all that really matters is that the police are helpless in the face dealing with a plague of powered criminals. Drug dealers and petty thieves are leveling up and slapping cops through walls, aware that policy prohibits the law from taking the pill themselves.

Stalwart officer Frank (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), determined to take the pills off the market at any cost – even if that means dosing himself – has befriended sympathetic teen dealer Robin (Dominique Fishback) in an attempt to work his way up the distribution chain; his work is derailed by the arrival of a hard case known as The Major (Jamie Foxx), who’s following the same trail and leaving a trail of destruction in his wake.

The Major grabs Robin. Frank comes after her. And the three of them eventually form an unlikely alliance to take down the bad guys once and for all. You know, like a league of justice or something.

There’s not much in Project Power that’s exactly original, which, whatever; originality burned itself out of this genre a long time ago. I also wonder whether audiences for big action movies really want it anyway; no one complains that all nine Fast & Furious movies feature car chases and monologues about the importance of family, after all.

So while Mattson Tomlin’s script doesn’t take any real chances with its narrative or its structure, which feel harvested from every 80s and 90s buddy-cop action movie, it does infuse those generic beats with reasonably inventive CG action sequences, replacing gunfights and chases with metahuman punch-ups.

If you want to watch Jamie Foxx fight a guy whose entire body is on fire, or see Joseph Gordon-Levitt chase a mostly invisible man across several city blocks, this movie gives you that. And though Foxx starts out all clenched and serious, which is his default in action roles, he warms up nicely in his scenes with Fishback, relating to her like a skeptical uncle.

(And yes, it’s initially weird to see Fishback – who’s almost 30, and whom you may remember from Show Me A Hero, The Deuce and The Hate U Give – play a teenager. But she sells it, and she absolutely sells Robin’s freestyle skills, so who am I to judge.)

Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, who are now officially a very long way from their docu-fiction indie Catfish, employ the standard neon-and-nighttime palette and appear to have allowed the actors to figure things out for themselves, which they’ve managed well enough.

But there’s never a moment when Project Power feels ready to truly engage with its central idea about racialized and marginalized people who’ll do anything to grasp at real power – there’s a reason this story is set in New Orleans, after all – and I did find myself wondering whether a more thoughtful filmmaker might have coaxed that out a little more. Joost and Schuman could have done it too; it wouldn’t have been that hard, really. But maybe Netflix had a release date to meet.

@normwilner

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