At one point in Netflix’s action-fantasy hybrid, Jamie Foxx keenly extols the pistol shrimp’s unexpected battle powers. Sadly, this promising but piecemeal genre twist from directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman (Catfish, Nerve) never quite matches the crustacean’s clout or surprise value. Despite its engaging A-grade leads, class-A-plus drugs, brutal bust-ups and political subtexts, Project Power struggles to coerce its parts into satisfying shape, let alone pack a potent thrill hit.
After his overdue return in hijack thriller 7500, Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Frank, a Dirty Harry-quoting cop investigating a new drug, Power, on New Orleans’ streets. Frank uses the pill himself to track Powered-up users and trace the food chain, riskily: the drug can transform users into superpowered mutants for five minutes, or kill them. Teenage rapper and dealer Robin (Dominique Fishback) becomes Frank’s contact; when veteran-on-a-mission Art (Foxx) abducts her for spoiler-y, albeit generic reasons, Frank gives pursuit.
Working with co-writer Mattson Tomlin (The Batman), Joost and Schulman strain to nail the pace or tone that might balance the trio’s narratives. Plotting expediencies mount; semi-comic and moody episodes clash. As for villains, the early death of one cliché-spouting rogue leaves no stand-out menace to elevate the predictable finale, beyond Amy Landecker’s underdeveloped character (one of many) and a few pill-freaks.
The glittering pill itself offers a mixed bag of grungy fun and unfulfilled potential. The idea that users have different experiences manifests nicely in superheroes-gone-wrong transformations: Hulk-ish, hypermobile, frozen, fiery, camouflaged, clawed – the comic-book references are obvious and the fight scenes impressive, if sometimes murky. But the pill’s effects needed more development, not least in relation to Frank’s usage.
If the derivative, over-burdened result risks looking like little more than the sum of its influences (think Limitless, X-Men, Bright, Iron Man 3, Dredd, Lucy, The Boys…), it’s the leads who keep it watchable enough for throwaway Friday-night fun. Though the script often strains to justify her presence (and impromptu veterinary skills) in the action, Fishback supplies charisma and rhyming powers. As for the men, both are far from stretched but cast for their strengths. At his best bantering with Fishback, Foxx’s sombre delivery recalls 2017’s Sleepless. The scene-stealer, meanwhile, is Gordon-Levitt, who navigates echoes of Inception, Premium Rush and (mostly) The Dark Knight Rises with warm, twinkly ease. “You know I’m awesome, right?” he quips, wryly. In a tighter project than this mixed-up Netflix genre mash, the pistol shrimp would have had competition.
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