A film review by Craig J. Koban August 28, 2020


2020, R, 113 mins.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Frank  /  Jamie Foxx as Art  /  Rodrigo Santoro as Biggie  /  Machine Gun Kelly as Newt  /  Courtney B. Vance as Captain Cran

Directed by Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman  /  Written by Mattson Tomlin


Even though the latest Netflix original film PROJECT POWER runs out of creative juices during its final act, it nevertheless finds some refreshingly novel ways of fusing together the super hero and drug trafficking genres with a rather ingenious premise.  

Directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman (who made the stylish, but empty minded NERVE) conjure up one humdinger of an enticing hook: What if we all lived in a world were a special illegal street drug could grant the user a surprise super power that would last for five minutes?  It gets even craftier than that: No user will know precisely what the power will be prior to taking the magic pill in question, and a small number of addicts that consume it for the first time could have a chance of a fatal side effect.  So, you might either be granted super speed or strength...or you could just spontaneously explode like a super nova and die.  

Would you take one, if granted the opportunity? 

PROJECT POWER benefits greatly by all of the tantalizing what-if scenarios that play out of this crazy premise, which further allows for it to segregate itself well apart from the umpteen number of comic book extravaganzas that populate the marketplace.  First-time screenwriter Mattson Tomlin reportedly came up with the idea a few years back while brainstorming over coffee (his future is about to blow up big time as the writer of the unreleased Matt Reeves directed THE BATMAN), and you can tell here in the final product that the makers have some fiendish fun in terms of tapping into all of the twisted possibilities that would be present in a real world scenario (like, for instance, the notion that people on both sides of the law would want to partake in the drug to get the upper hand on the other).  There are times while watching PROJECT POWER when some sensations of deja vu are present (it reminded me a lot of the kind of similar LIMITLESS), and its aforementioned climax seems to coast by on overused genre conventions.  Still, PROJECT POWER generates ample crazy mayhem throughout as a compulsively watchable genre mashup. 

The script follows two tangents, one involving a tough and no-nonsense police officer and the other with an ex-soldier, with both of their paths unavoidably colliding over the super drug in question.  Set in the a near alternate future New Orleans (but one that still suffered the trauma of Hurricane Katrina), the film opens by showing the narcotic being secretly unleashed onto the streets and into the hands of the most poor and desperate.  This catches the eye of NOPD officer Frank (a solid and steely eyed Joseph Gordon-Levitt), who's so dedicated to stopping this illegal supply chain that he's willing to actually use it to gain special abilities to thwart any criminal activity related to it, much to his superior officers' chagrin back at HQ.  When Frank takes his pill while undercover he's granted ungodly amounts of strength, albeit and as mentioned, for just five minutes.   



As for the solider?  Art (Jamie Fox) is on his very own and deeply personal vendetta mission against peddlers of the drug.  His daughter has been kidnapped by the nefarious dealers of the product when it's learned that she can possibly hang on to her powers indefinitely after taking the drug, which makes her a highly valuable research asset...and also a disposable one once the crooks have extrapolated what they need out of her.  While on his one man mission Art ends up crossing paths with not only Frank, but with a teenager caught between them in Robin (Dominique Fishback, in the film's breakout performance), who's is caught dealing the drug on the side just to be able to support herself and her debt riddled family.  Realizing that they're probably better together as a team-up trio as opposed to working against one another, Frank, Art and Robin work their way up the supply chain to get to the story's final end boss, so to speak, and, in turn, rescue and save Art's beleaguered daughter. 

Right from the get-go it appears that PROJECT POWER was definitely not done on the cheap, despite it not being made for theatrical distribution.  The near $100 million Netflix effort boasts stellar production values and highly polished VFX that can easily rival any other large scale MCU or DCEU entry.  That, and directors Joost and Schulman really stretch their creative muscles when it comes to the lively action set pieces that are peppered by thanklessly convincing CGI.  Take, for instance, PROJECT POWER's bravura standout sequence involving Frank engaging in a foot chase against a bank robber, with both pursuer and prey being high, so to speak, on the drug.  Frank, as established, emerges as iron fisted strongman, whereas the fleeing crook has a two powers in one: he's both invisible and able to blend into his background environment like a clandestine chameleon.  There's another stellar scene, much earlier in the story, showcasing the gun touting Art going toe-to-toe with a user that has literally gone up in flames like the Human Torch from THE FANTASTIC FOUR, with the added complexity of this poor sap probably blowing up after his five minutes are up.  There's no question that the makers here are letting their imaginations run enjoyably wild in conjuring up one exhilarating beat after another that taps into their medicated meta human conceit. 

Another thing that's great - and probably needs to be mentioned more than it has been by other critics - is the diversity of the cast in question.  We get so very few super hero themed films these days spring boarded by African Americans, so it's more than welcoming to see Foxx and Fishback (with a confident Gordon-Levitt in tow) leading the charge.  Foxx in particular has a level of quiet, internalized rage here that suits his character well (you can tell that he could boil over at any moment), and he's an endlessly commanding presence through the film that is matched rather well with the cold and calculated Gordon-Levitt, the latter who is perhaps not granted as much of a meaningful arc with his role, but he still crafts a charismatic anti-hero.  PROJECT POWER is owned, though, by Fishback, who is given the most compelling persona in the film to play: a high schooler with aspirations of a rap career who risks it all by being a dealer on the streets.  Fishback imbues in Robin (BTW, a bit of a distractingly on-the-nose sidekick name, if you ask me) a gritty toughness, yet vulnerability that makes her feel compellingly fleshed out.  It's the kind of career making turn that makes you want to see future sequels with her involvement. 

If only the dastardly villains, though, were as inspired as the heroes, and that's one of the key areas where PROJECT POWER lets down its viewers.  Rodrigo Santoro is sort of miscast as his hyper motormouthed dealer that's targeted by Frank and Art, not to mention that Amy Landecker shows up far later in the production in an antagonist role that supposed to be largely significant, but feels woefully underwritten and lacking in sinister interest.  Comic book inspired film usually suffer from the fate of having villains that steal the spotlight from the heroes, whereas in PROJECT POWER it's the exact opposite.  And, of course, the initial intrepidness of the scripting here gives way to some wasteful plot developments that don't seem altogether interested in further exploring its super powered drug idea.  Hell, some ideas (like a cop addicted to the product whose proprietors he's trying to thwart) are all but sidestepped here in terms of moral and ethical conundrums.  Also, the concept of placing the film in New Orleans and the added subtext of a community that has suffered from environmental tragedy now having its most impoverished and needy citizens being used as drug guinea pigs feels like a missed thematic opportunity here.  And by the time PROJECT POWER reaches a frenetically action packed and viscerally potent, but obligatory third act involving kidnapping, a massive battle between good and evil on a dock, and been-there, done-that shoot outs and fist fights it's almost as if Joost, Schulman and Tomlin are spinning their wheels too lazily and are running out of innovative gas.  PROJECT POWER starts off and builds up unlike so many other thrillers and super hero flicks, but then devolves into a finale that seems ripped from dozens of other forgettable ones. 

Yet, there's simply no denying the remarkable niftiness of this film on a conceptual front, and it does try awfully hard to do something decidedly different in a very, very overcrowded genre.  That's commendable in its own right, and pretty damn difficult in this day an age (making a comic book inspired extravaganza that doesn't completely play into the troupes playbook isn't that easy).  PROJECT POWER crashes and burns a bit too much for its own good in its final twenty-plus minutes, but as a compellingly concocted alternative to other big budget genre fare it's agreeably loony, entertaining, visually dynamic, and boasts a terrific trio of on-point actors that give some thanklessly layered performances that add dramatic heft to the frankly out-there material.  There's no debate that PROJECT POWER is made up of some familiar elements that we've all seen before, but it combines them into a fiendishly enthralling mixture that subverts our expectations for this type of material, and legitimately leaves streamers (myself included) wanting to see the ideas here expanded upon in future entries.

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