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Superhero movies are a dime a dozen in 2020. Fifteen years ago, it would be groundbreaking that a junior varsity X-Men squad like The New Mutants was getting its own comic-book movie. Now, we have so many spandex-clad adaptations, the New Mutants will be lucky to land in a theater, and not shuttled to a streaming service.
One way around the superhero glut is to find a story involving super powers that doesn’t dwell on superheroes. Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman’s Project Power doesn’t have any capes or cowls. There are no monologues by masked villains. It takes comic-book clichés and applies them to a gritty, sweaty cop thriller, giving its story a stylish coat of paint that results in a sleek, silly night at the movies.
Project Power has a cool and impressively original idea.
In the not so distant future, there’s a drug peddled on the streets that gives the user five uninterrupted minutes of a super power. You might burst into flames, a la The Human Torch. You could end up invincible, able to sustain a bullet shot to your face, like Superman. Tragically, some people take the pill and immediately die. There’s an element of danger, as with any illegal substance.
This story ropes in three main characters directly tied to the Power drug. Art (Jamie Foxx) is a former soldier who’s currently tracking his kidnapped daughter, and has to work his way up the drug supply chain in order to locate her. His path crosses with Robin (Dominique Fishback), a small-time dealer who suddenly finds herself in way over her head.
Across town, New Orleans street cop Frank (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) can’t stand facing off against short-term super-powered crooks, and is thinking of taking the Power pill himself to level the playing field. Their destinies are about to collide as they all find themselves on the radar of Biggie (Rodrigo Santoro), a massive distributor who has a risky deal in play.
It’s a cool premise. Giving characters a specific power for five minutes is thrilling, and making the main characters powerless gives Project Power a realistic angle. We side with Foxx, Fishback and Gordon-Levitt because they seem like underdogs in a potentially fantastic world.
However, Project Power doesn’t fully explore it’s coolest idea.
The grounded approach slows Project Power down. A lot. And while I’m willing to chalk this up to budget constraints, we don’t get to see as many examples of the super-charged criminals as I would have hoped going in to Project Power.
It’s not like people in this New Orleans environment need to pull off something extraordinary to trigger their individual powers. They don’t have to be struck by lightning, or bitten by a radioactive insect. They just have to pop a pill… and a pill that seems to be readily available. When Project Power shows an energized super being, it’s pretty spectacular. But those occurrences are fleeting, giving us chatty, character-developing scenes that are necessary, but not really fun.
There’s also a tremendous missed opportunity to see the full extent of the Power drug exploited. I’m not saying that I wanted to see a WWE-style Royal Rumble consisting of numerous drug-enhanced beings fight each other… well, maybe I am saying that. There’s one thrilling fight sequence in the middle of Project Power that takes advantage of the movie’s premise, but that’s where the movie peaks.
Still, Project Power is sleek and stylish enough to make it watchable.
And these days, that’s almost enough? Theaters are closed. Netflix has been filling the entertainment void with high-octane action thrillers that deliver bursts of adrenaline but stumble when scrutinized beyond their surface scripting. Think Chris Hemsworth’s Extraction, or Charlize Theron’s recent The Old Guard. Project Power falls in line with those films. They have interesting ideas, and benefit from the unquestionable star power of their A-list leads.
This happens in Project Power. Foxx, Gordon-Levitt and the relative newcomer Fishback command the screen as the movie skips along at its brisk pace. They make sure you don’t stop too long to think about the story’s beats.
It’s worth noting, Project Power co-directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman aren’t exactly known for action. Their credits include the dating documentary Catfish, and the Paranormal Activity franchise. But they make a solid transition to the action genre with the sequences they attempt in Project Power. It makes me wish they tried more of them in this movie.