Project Power, 2020.
Directed by Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost.
Starring Jamie Foxx, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Dominique Fishback, Machine Gun Kelly, Rodrigo Santoro, Amy Landecker, Courtney B. Vance, and Allen Maldonado.
When a pill that gives its users unpredictable superpowers for five minutes hits the streets of New Orleans, a teenage dealer and a local cop must team with an ex-soldier to take down the group responsible for its creation.
If Netflix’s recent The Old Guard made it abundantly clear that the streaming platform is craving its own answer to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, there’s certainly something to be said for more modest high-concept genre films which aren’t straining quite so aggressively to be all things to all people.
Enter Project Power, a mid-budget superhero romp from filmmaking duo Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman (Catfish, Paranormal Activity 3, Nerve), which offers up a neat hook, delivers an entertaining and pacy time on the basis of that hook, and isn’t hastily attempting to establish itself as a “brand.”
In New Orleans, a mysterious new pill called Power has hit the streets, allowing anyone who takes it to unlock a superpower tailored to their DNA for five minutes – that is, if you don’t immediately explode first.
As Power holds the city in its grip, the police enact increasingly extreme measures to stamp it out, prompting cop Frank (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) to team up with a troubled teenager dealer, Robin (Dominique Fishback), to track down those responsible for its creation. Meanwhile vigilante Art (Jamie Foxx) similarly prowls the streets looking for answers, with a highly personal motivation to boot.
A tantalising gimmick can only take a movie so far, but Project Power has the courage of its convictions to ensure it ends up more than a shallow hodgepodge of Limitless and The Avengers. The script from Mattson Tomlin – who has also co-written Matt Reeves’ upcoming The Batman – takes a seemingly conventional “find the supplier” drug thriller narrative and injects it with both a socially conscious bent and a righteous burst of adrenaline.
There isn’t much subtlety here with regard to the film’s commentary on racism and the fancies of white police, but it is certainly effective – and let’s be honest, how many superhero movies not called Black Panther are dealing with these issues in even a totally facile way?
There’s an anger pulsing through the movie, a deeply-felt rage about existing power structures in society, most memorably highlighted by a surprisingly effective comic relief beat in which Frank uses his sheer white-ness to shoo away a cop bothering Robin’s guardian.
There is also a keen focus here on both characters and action, for though Gordon-Levitt and Foxx are actually compartmentalised into their own separate interactions with Robin for most of the movie, in each case the chemistry is strong. What might seem trope-y on the surface – particularly Art’s motivation for seeking Power’s source – feels relatively fresh thanks to a unique context which doesn’t quite plant its feet too deeply in either the superhero or crime buckets.
Each breadcrumb-following incident typically culminates in a snappily-crafted set-piece, and here Joost and Schulman prove their aesthetic chops far beyond anything they’ve produced before. Between the smoothly controlled camerawork, surprisingly sharp visual effects, and creative powers on display, these scenes genuinely feel original and cinematic, rather than camera coverage semi-randomly spliced together during post-production (looking at you, The Old Guard).
An early sequence in which Art chases down Newt (Machine Gun Kelly), a Power user with the ability to emanate fire from his skin, is more delirious and frenetic in its craft than most other action set-pieces I’ve seen this year. At its core it’s a simple scene, enlivened by creative shot selections, clean VFX, and a punchy, pulsing musical score from Joseph Trapanese.
The movie’s entire aesthetic is also defined by the New Orleans setting, and as much a critical cliche as it is to call a city a character in of itself, it’s certainly true in this case. The sense of place throughout is palpable, often thanks to Michael Simmonds’ evocative scenic cinematography.
Though Project Power avoids most of the genre pitfalls, there are definitely issues when it has to actually be more of a typical tentpole attraction. It continues the grand superhero movie tradition of featuring a wildly mediocre set of villains, who not unlike The Old Guard work for a shady, generic conglomerate. Rodrigo Santoro’s sub-boss Biggie is a total non-event of a villain, while Amy Landecker is thoroughly wasted in the piecemeal role of Gardner, the real Big Bad running the show.
The fact that neither of these characters figure much until act three seems to suggest screenwriter Tomlin knows where his strengths lie. It’s just a shame that they join the party only briefly before the finale segues into an almost comically video game-y showdown set in a highly overused location.
And yet, it’s a testament to every other aspect of the production that it didn’t hamper my enjoyment too much; the central performances and sheer filmmaking nous maintained their integrity all the way to the finish line, no matter those back-end indulgences.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who hasn’t been in nearly enough movies lately, is clearly having a blast as the rootin’ tootin’ cop with a sure sense of humour and greater sense of justice. He’s also surprisingly bereft of his own grim sob-story, allowing him to serve as a ballast for the more forlorn through-lines of the other two leads.
Foxx meanwhile tows a solid line between serious and comedic, bringing his usual charm and swagger to the table yet without undermining any of the real dramatic stakes. But in many ways Project Power‘s real triumph is the casting of Fishback as Robin. Her banter with both of her A-lister co-stars is organic and witty, while her charming moxie and tortured upbringing make her an easy character to root for.
As mentioned, the peripheral players in the supporting cast don’t fare quite so well; Santoro and Landecker are basically collecting a paycheck, while Courtney B. Vance shows up for a bizarrely minuscule role as Frank’s boss, Captain Crane.
But Project Power thrills often, while delivering just enough mental and emotional stimulus to feel like more than an effectively crafted fireworks show. The sentiment isn’t laid on too thickly, and to my gob-smacked surprise, it makes no overt attempt to set up a franchise. Yes, there is certainly sequel potential here, but there aren’t any ham-fisted plugs for planned follow-ups, nor even a hint of a post-credits scene promising a Power Universe.
Smart, stylish, and compellingly acted, Project Power tells a riveting, self-contained superhero story which isn’t desperately trying to sell you a glut of sequels or a cinematic universe.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Shaun Munro – Follow me on Twitter for more film rambling.