Project Power is a generic action thriller disguised as a subversive superhero movie, but it gets by thanks to charismatic leads and strong dialogue.
Project Power is not a superhero movie. Itâs a sci-fi actioner about a drug that gives folks superpowers for five minutes, the idea being that most folk would use such powers to commit crime rather than prevent it. The twist is that you donât know what powers itâs going to give you until you take the pill. It might turn you invisible, or it might make your chest explode. Not unlike the first Purge movie, this latest Netflix
mockbuster uses the very things that might make it interesting as mere topical seasoning for a pretty generic story. That the film, directed by Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost (whose terrific Nerve wholly committed to its âWhat if?â premise), works at all is mostly due to the sheer charisma of its heroic trio and just enough individual scenes that show off what might have been in a more daring picture.
The film is indeed another Netflix original, which means it spends Hollywood money ($85 million) to look like a straight-to-DVD or barely-released-into-350-theaters genre knockoff. If I were seeing Project Power in theaters as counter-programming to the more franchise-specific blockbusters, Iâd probably be inclined to grade it on a curve, not unlike AXL, Kin or Freaks, the latter of which I saw in theaters completely blind, rather enjoyed and then forgot about it until it became one of Netflixâs most-watched features for a day or three. However, Project Power features two genuine movie stars (Jamie Foxx and Joseph Gordon-Levitt), cost about as much as the first Jumanji sequel, and is from the studio essentially trying to monopolize the entertainment industry by overwhelming its competition before anyone notices that A) they still have quite a bit of debt and B) most of their subscribers binge third-party movies and TV shows.
As for the movie, itâs a pretty formulaic affair. Gordon-Levitt as a New Orleans cop who is secretly taking the âIâm bullet proof and super-strongâ drug in order to keep up with the newly-emerging breed of pill-popping super criminals. Foxx is a traumatized soldier who was a proverbial lab rat for the dugs and whose daughter inherited permanent powers as a result. Sheâs been abducted, so even though heâs introduced as a borderline villain, the movie is unwilling to even flirt with making him an anti-hero. Dominique Fishback is the young girl caught in the middle, a mediocre student but talented rapper who is selling the drug to pay for her motherâs cancer treatments. Thereâs a version of this movie where sheâs the uncontested protagonist, but the film constantly defers to its big stars and in the end sheâs mostly there to bear witness and be imperiled.
Mattson Tomlinâs screenplay is a structural mess, spending the first 75 minutes on âact oneâ before rushing into the action climax. While both the cop and the soldier each get a solid introductory action sequence, the whole âthe bad guys have superpowersâ angle is woefully underused. Simply put, if you removed the gimmick from the story, it would barely change. That the villains are shockingly bland doesnât help one bit. The notion that the pill seemingly gives you the same power over and over again (NOPD officer Frank consistently gets the same âIâm bulletproof and super-strongâ abilities each time he takes the same pill) negates the whole âWhatâs gonna happen to me this time?â aspect. Yes, the random superpowers aspect adds spice to the action scenes, but itâs not really about its core concept. The moments that work best in Project Power have nothing to do with its gimmick.
As noted above, the three leads are pretty terrific, with Foxx exuding a certain fiery intensity that feels like it belongs in a darker, more cynical movie. Fishback has strong chemistry with both male leads, even if Iâll again complain that the script fails to give her a proactive role in the story. The film is at its best, oddly enough, when its characters are conversing with each other. Thatâs when we get observations about new forms of power usually ending up in the hands of the already powerful, Americaâs legacy of using poor people of color as medical test subjects, and the challenges of overcoming institutional barriers. The movie isnât really about any of these things, but then it shouldnât have to be. Oh, and thereâs a big action sequence just over an hour into the movie that is shot from a most unusual vantage point.
If Project Power were a low-budget theatrically-released original, Iâd probably be inclined to note the pros and cons and note that âItâs a movieâ¦ a stylish, visually creative and entertaining oneâ and give it as much credit as possible for being somewhat unique. That itâs an $85 million Netflix original that doesnât quite have the courage of its convictions is an issue, but not a deal breaker. Oh, unlike last monthâs big âmore expensive than it looksâ sci-fi actioner, Project Power does not spend its entire running time setting up a sequel. Yes, there could absolutely be a sequel, and heck they could follow the path of The Purge: Anarchy and really make a movie about the gimmick next time, but the movie has its own beginning, middle and end. That shouldnât be something that counts for bonus points, but thatâs where we are in 2020.
I’ve studied the film industry, both academically and informally, and with an emphasis in box office analysis, for nearly 30 years. I have extensively written about all
I’ve studied the film industry, both academically and informally, and with an emphasis in box office analysis, for nearly 30 years. I have extensively written about all of said subjects for the last 11 years. My outlets for film criticism, box office commentary, and film-skewing scholarship have included The Huffington Post, Salon, and Film Threat. Follow me at @ScottMendelson and « like » The Ticket Booth on Facebook.
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