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?
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
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.
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