Hot on the heels of The Old Guard, Project Power is Netflix’s second super-powered action movie of the summer – here’s our review.
If you’re waiting for your fix of superhero movies in a time of delays and deferrals, Netflix has got you covered. Starring Jamie Foxx, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and Dominique Fishback, Project Power sees New Orleans transformed into the testing ground for a new designer drug called Power. Putting the X in X-Men, the highly dangerous pill gives the user personally unique superpowers for up to five minutes before wearing off.
Six weeks later, the NOPD are variously either overrun by a super-powered crimewave or in the pockets of the mysterious Big Pharma suppliers. One fateful night, teenage dealer Robin (Fishback) runs across the path of the Major, (Foxx) a soldier-turned-vigilante who wants to shut Power down at the source. With the help of beat cop Frank, (Gordon-Levitt) a regular buyer who secretly uses Power to take down more dangerous perps, they blaze a trail through hired goons and corrupt cops in search of the truth.
We’ve all seen posters for films that we quite like the look of but think we’ll wait until it’s available to watch at home instead of stumping up for a multiplex ticket. And yet, as others have observed, there’s still a certain snobbery about Netflix Original films like Extinction, The Old Guard, and now Project Power coming out on a near-monthly basis, even though they’re exactly the kind of solid 3-out-of-5 actioners that studios would usually be putting into cinemas anyway, and they’ve usually got a more diverse cast and crew too.
If anything, Netflix has made that process of waiting to stream this sort of movie more efficient, which is handy when most film fans are still staying at home. We’ll grant you that this is arguably the weakest of the three aforementioned actioners, but that’s less down to any glaring failures than the unfulfilled potential on display.
Mattson Tomlin’s propulsive script does pay lip service to its not-so-subtle allegory about institutions abusing marginalised communities, (“Power goes where it always goes – to people who already have it”, Foxx observes in one rather loaded deduction) but the film often cedes screen-time to CG-heavy, five-minutes-flat action sequences rather than satisfying science fiction. By the same token, it’s the kind of movie where one character tells another, “This isn’t a movie, this is real life”, which always does my head in.
Still, its unfussy execution is no mark against the film as a genre exercise and tempting as it may be to review it for what it could have been, the film does have plenty of charms as is, not least in Dominique Fishback’s breakout performance. Playing much younger than her 29 years, she gives the compromised teen a much-needed grounding in between the fights and effects-driven carnage, whether she’s rapping to herself or trying to fix her poker face towards more powerful grown-ups.
It’s also terrific to see Gordon-Levitt having such fun, and a scene in which he enters someone else’s home via their bathroom is a particular highlight. He picks up more or less where his character in The Dark Knight Rises left off here, and it’s the strength of his charismatic performance that keeps Frank from being more problematic.
Without his funny, endearing turn, it would be more of a problem that Frank’s repeated pill-popping veers closer to the sort of unchecked power fantasy you expect from the worst cop movies more than the best superhero outings. In a film that only pays lip service to the effect of America’s so-called war on drugs, this feels like a miscalculation. Unlike, say, 2011’s Limitless, this doesn’t pull the hero up on his reliance on pills either.
Directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman previously gave us 2016’s Nerve, an under-appreciated thriller about a live-app gameshow based on dangerous dares. That film opens up nicely as its stakes escalate, but their latest peaks early with a foot chase between Frank and a bank robber with a visually unique power, and compresses its own boundless potential from there.
Like Fishback and Gordon-Levitt, Foxx brings more to his dad-sploitation stock character in his performance, but its slimmer pickings for him and the purely functional arch-villains (Rodrigo Santoro and Amy Landecker). It’s for commissioners to speculate about a crossover linking between the Big Pharma baddies in Project Power and the Big Pharma baddies in The Old Guard, but as of now, it seems a convenient way of populating a roster of antagonists.
If Netflix does start another interconnected superhero franchise, (a not-so-cinematic universe?) it has unique selling points over DC and Marvel in a more mature approach to diversity and a firmer footing in contemporary issues, all of which usually works to Project Power’s advantage too. However, that ground is there for the taking, and despite committed performances and intriguing stories, neither of these films has persuasively staked it out.
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