Is "Project Power," a Netflix movie starring Jamie Foxx and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, a worthy addition to the superhero movie genre, or is it a forgettable dud? Here's what the reviews say. "Project Power" streams on Netflix on August 14.
It's A Superhero Movie, But The Superhero Powers Come With A Catch
The setting is New Orleans five minutes into the future, and the city has a very scary and specific drug problem: capsules that give you a superpower, but you can never be sure exactly which superpower, and it only lasts five minutes.
Foxx plays Art, a former soldier tracking his kidnapped daughter, who is being held by the same powers-that-be manufacturing the drug. Art enlists the help of Robin (Dominique Fishback), a promising young rapper with ties to the drug trade, and Frank (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a cop with no qualms about using the drug in his quest to get it off the streets.
The Movie Is Entertaining Enough, Though Not Exactly Original
Sure, it has conceptual similarities to the Bradley Cooper vehicle "Limitless," to DC Comics property "Hourman," to Image Comics' "War Heroes." Let's even throw in a touch of "X-Men," "The Matrix," "Firestarter" and "Jacob's Ladder." But seriously, so what? Is it even possible for a superpower movie to be truly original anymore? In fact, what makes "Project Power" entertaining is its canny combination of familiar ingredients in a textured real-world milieu that gives it fresh flavor.
You've got your "X-Men" references, your "Captain America" riffs, your "Midnight Special" parallels and elements that are similar to last year's as-yet-unreleased festival title "Synchronic." And the film does it all while pummeling the viewer with an overwhelming blend of hip-hop musical cues, graffiti-covered walls and in-your-face camerawork in an attempt to convince viewers that this is a movie that hums with the energy of the streets.
The Action Scenes Are Frenetic, To Say The Least
"Project Power" has a nicely saturated, jittery visual language, an aesthetic that operates in concert with (Mattson) Tomlin's surprisingly discursive script, giving the film an actual grain of place-and-time texture. "Project Power" often has a pleasing specificity to it, even when it's thrashing around in violent special-effects hullabaloo.
Cinematographer Michael Simmonds loves throwing in canted angles with little regard for the desired effect. When Biggie (Rodrigo Santoro) introduces Project Power to a host of young drug dealers led by Newt, a lower angle shot employs the harshest rack focus — from Biggie to the pill in his hand — I've ever seen. The over-stylized cinematography and composition, aiming for a visceral tone, does the fight choreography no favors.
The color scheme is bold and the soundtrack loud, but the plot is loose and confused — which is fine, because it's secondary to the lighting and camerawork, anyway. The CGI is unremarkable, and the screenplay full of dopey one-liners about "good guys" and "bad guys" and "shov[ing]" things "up your motherfucking [EXPLOSION]."
And Its Central Themes Feel Muddied
[T]he gravest error in the superhero flick springs from the opaqueness of its central theme: the appropriation of disadvantaged Black and Brown people for medical experimentation. The history of the medical community using marginalized people as guinea pigs runs deep […] The distrust felt by Black and Brown people toward the medical community continues to this day, especially with regards to Black people disbelieving the medical community with regards to the COVID-19 pandemic. When combined with a New Orleans still reeling from Hurricane Katrina, and the racial inequality instituted by the federal government during the crisis, the socio-economic importance should've granted a stronger pull. However, "Project Power" buries the relevant themes under the weight of action muscle.
"Project Power" feels like an interesting base with all its edges beaten into the most broadly digestible shape possible. The script, from Mattson Tomlin, is clearly this close to being about the United States' "War on Drugs" and the way it unfairly targets Black communities. But the movie can't bring itself to actually touch the topic — as if it's only interesting in it in theory — and largely hamstrings the entire idea by devoting so much time to a Good White Cop.
But Jamie Foxx And Dominique Fishback's Performances Are Still Worth Watching
The humanity of the leads fills up the hollowness, putting flesh, or at least charm and attitude, on their archetypes. Foxx holds the center easily with the kind of imposing physicality and emotional stoicism that has long defined the male savior-redeemers played by John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, Denzel Washington and so on (and so on).
The lively interplay among all three keeps the movie humming, but it's the scenes between Art and Robin that provide the heart. No dis to Gordon-Levitt, whose wiry physicality and easygoing charm are a valuable part of the package, but this definitely feels like a rare superpower flick driven by Black characters. Foxx is charismatic and effortlessly funny, without shortchanging the tortured side of Art's bitter experience. And Fishback, so good at playing bruised, street-smart young women on HBO's "The Deuce" and in the lovely indie drama "Night Comes On," mixes innocence, quick-thinking savvy and snark here to disarming effect.
Dominique Fishback (Darlene on HBO's "The Deuce") steals scenes right out from under both of them (Fox and Gordon-Levitt) as teenaged Robin, a wannabe rapper who's dealing the drug on the streets to pay for her sick mother's operation. She's a livewire who dodges clichés with the skill of an Olympian, relying on her own power as an actor, singer and electrifying screen presence.
While Joseph Gordon-Levitt's Acting Is A Bit Hit-Or-Miss
Joseph Gordon-Levitt, as a cop who feels it's his mandate to take the drug, since all the foes he's fighting are on it, starts off by doing a bizarrely overstated robot macho-man thing, as if this were his impersonation of a bad Keanu Reeves performance. But he settles into a groove and becomes a stalwart presence.
The only lead wasted is Gordon-Levitt, who is basically hitting exactly the same notes he did in "The Dark Knight Rises," a Good Cop protecting This City™.
It's fine. The world needs perfectly fine action movies, and Netflix is happy to provide. The brand is "I'm not mad I watched that," and in that sense "Project Power" is another solid dinger to left field disguised as a home run.