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Project Power

Project Power is a new action film from Netflix about an unsuspecting young black woman who gets entangled in a massive conspiracy involving superpowered humans and an immoral Big Pharma conglomerate. I thought I’d give it a try because it worked out so well for The Old Guard, but the film is far and away worse for inviting such comparisons. Let’s take it from the top, shall we?

We open in modern-day New Orleans, with the arrival of a new drug called “Power” that grants superpowers to anyone who ingests it. However, the superpowers only last for five minutes at a time. More importantly, the drug interacts in an unpredictable and potentially volatile way with the genetic makeup of each individual user. Until the drug is taken for the first time, there’s no way of knowing whether the little glowing pill will grant someone super strength, super speed, telekinesis, invulnerability, or maybe just blow them up on the spot.

Oh, and some giant pharmaceutical company is behind the whole thing for their own nefarious purposes, that goes without saying.

On one side is Art (Jamie Foxx), a former major in the Army Rangers who’s out to dismantle the Power drug trade for his own personal reasons. On the other side is Frank (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a detective in the New Orleans PD who has to go rogue because strange men in black suits keep turning the police away from any investigation into Power.

Caught in between the two is Robin (Dominique Fishback), a young black girl with a diabetic single mother who doesn’t have health insurance. (By the way, it’s clearly established that this same single mother works in a veterinary clinic. A medical clinic that doesn’t give its employees health insurance? Sounds screwy to me, but we’ll roll with it.) Anyway, Robin and her family need money badly enough that Robin doesn’t really waste her time with school, so she sells drugs on the side while practicing her skills for a nascent rap career.

Thus the young drug dealer gets in over her head and we’re off to the races.

Let’s start with the casting. Jamie Foxx and Joseph Gordon-Levitt are both playing solidly to their respective wheelhouses. There’s not much of anything we haven’t already seen these two do in so many other, better movies, but it’s still entertaining to watch.

Alas, while Dominique Fishback shows a lot of potential here (and she’s quietly been developing a sturdy resume over the past few years), she’s not strong enough to carry the whole film. Of course, it certainly doesn’t help that she’s a relative newcomer trying to hold the screen against the finely-honed and well-established routines of Foxx and JGL.

But perhaps more importantly, Robin is a weak protagonist. Don’t get me wrong, the character is proactive and she’s clearly got initiative, that’s not the problem — the problem is that Robin’s motivation isn’t nearly strong enough or clear enough to justify the actions that she takes for as long as she takes them.

For that matter, the antagonist is pretty weak as well. The bad guys are never really developed beyond a vague shadowy monolithic force that somehow plans to take over the world with this wonder drug. There is no one character we can track and follow and pin all our hatred on, because the bosses are all killed off just as soon as we meet them. Everyone’s this nameless faceless figure who wants money and power because they’re evil.

There are no specifics as to who the major players are, what their plan is, or how they plan to accomplish any of this with a drug that might spontaneously kill the user upon ingestion. And there’s no stated motivation for any of this, beyond some overdramatic monologues about evolution and scientific progress and blah blah blah.

And then of course we have the premise. The very nature of the premise lends itself to a vast array of potential superpowers, and this potential is mostly squandered. The powers on display are pretty much entirely limited to super-strength or invulnerability, or they’re limited to tight quarters. Seriously, nearly every fight scene either takes place in a cramped hallway or between rows of shipping containers. There’s even one fight scene that takes place inside a bar, but it’s shot from inside a cage for some reason and it’s barely visible. Even the huge climactic moment is a massive CGI explosion (of sorts) that doesn’t involve any actual conflict.

Though we do get one chase scene with a guy who blends into his surroundings, that’s pretty cool.

A lot of these problems might have been solved at the screenplay stage, but I’m not sure that’s the real problem here. The screenplay is credited to Mattson Tomlin, a relative newcomer to feature cinema, though he’s apparently hot enough that WB hired him to help write the upcoming The Batman. No, I think the bigger problem here is that Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman are hacks.

This is the same duo that directed the pathetically brain-dead Nerve and the pitifully overrated Catfish. I haven’t seen Paranormal Activity 3 or 4, but I don’t think it’s a coincidence that they came on right when the franchise nose-dived.

(Side note: This same team of Joost, Schulman, and Tomlin recently announced that they were working on a Mega Man film adaptation. If this falls apart in development, I get the feeling it would be a blessing.)

Here we have an action movie in which all of the action is too cramped and underlit to be any fun. A movie with huge ideas and half-assed follow-through. Going on to the performances, the editing, the shot compositions… everything about this smells of a film put together by directors who had no idea what they were doing.

With all of that said, at least the film makes one coherent statement about how all of us are naturally good at something. We all have something to bring to the world, and there’s something each of us can do better than anyone else. Tying that empowering theme into a story about drug-induced superpowers was an inspired move. Such a damn shame that the filmmakers had so much else to say about capitalistic tyranny, the current state of (American) medical care, race relations, and so many other topics that never quite congeal into coherent artistic statements.

Project Power is the very definition of mediocre. It doesn’t do anything particularly wrong, but it doesn’t do anything especially right. It’s a decent way to spend 100 minutes, but this easily could’ve been so much more.

My advice: Keep an eye on Dominique Fishback’s next career moves, watch The Old Guard instead, and quit giving Joost and Schulman work.

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