Jamie Foxx, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Dominique Fishback get caught up in deadly pharmaceutical chaos in this high-octane, New Orleans-set sci-fi action thriller from Netflix.
When Netflix began promoting its latest entry in the summer-that-never-was blockbuster stakes, Project Power, it was hard to suppress an eye-roll of weary puzzlement at the fanboys eager to slam it as lame and derivative. Sure, it has conceptual similarities to the Bradley Cooper vehicle Limitless, to DC Comics property Hourman, to Image Comics’ War Heroes. Let’s even throw in a touch of X-Men, The Matrix, Firestarter and Jacob’s Ladder. But seriously, so what? Is it even possible for a superpower movie to be truly original anymore? In fact, what makes Project Power entertaining is its canny combination of familiar ingredients in a textured real-world milieu that gives it fresh flavor.
Well, that and the dynamic execution of co-directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman and their crack stunt and VFX teams. Not to mention a trio of magnetic leads that start out in opposing corners but soon discover common ground, sparking up some enjoyable chemistry. The title is a tad generic, but Project Power is fast-paced, pulpy fun, with plenty of big action set-pieces and enough sly humor to conjure the escape of the multiplex.
The screenplay is by Mattson Tomlin, whose stock has risen since he was brought on board by director Matt Reeves to co-write The Batman, the caped crusader reboot starring Robert Pattinson. Tomlin also has the sci-fi romantic drama Little Fish in the can, with Olivia Cooke and Jack O’Connell, its release plans on hold since the coronavirus lockdown scuttled its Tribeca Film Festival premiere.
The directors turned heads with their inventive 2010 documentary Catfish and then went on to make the third and fourth installments in the Paranormal Activity franchise, as well as the thrillers Nerve and Viral. They bill their work here as “A Film by Henry & Rel,” a vanity credit echoed in the taste for flashy visual bombast. The early action sometimes calls to mind the overblown Eurotrashy bang of Luc Besson and his ’90s disciples. But once the characters and their relationships are established, and the stakes are in place, it’s an exciting ride.
From the start, New Orleans provides a gritty setting for a thriller that unfolds predominantly at night. As a cargo ship pulls into the port at 3 a.m., a sharp-suited, sleazy middleman named Biggie (Rodrigo Santoro) oversees the unloading of countless crates all packed with iridescent capsules, which he offers up free to the assembled “young entrepreneurs” for distribution. A bug-eyed guy named Newt (Colson Baker), who appears to be as much a consumer as a vendor, asks what’s the product. “This… is power,” responds Biggie, with enigmatic self-importance.
In what seems like an instant, 9-1-1 callboards are lighting up across the city as reports come in about weird feats of unnatural strength. Young dealer Robin (Dominique Fishback) is about to have her stash stolen by three punks when plain-clothes N.O.P.D. detective Frank Shaver (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) pulls up on a motorcycle and sends them scurrying. We know Frank loves his city because he wears the No. 37 jersey of Saints legend Steve Gleason, but he’s also a rule-breaker, relying on Robin to supply him with pills to help him track down the source.
The power pill, it emerges, is a DNA-based concentrate developed out of the evolutionary characteristics of multiple species. It unlocks different superpowers in every person who swallows it — bulletproof skin, invisibility, thermoregulation, chameleonic adaptability, fire-resistance, bendable bones and limbs that spout knives. The catch is that the potency lasts for exactly five minutes, and in some cases, a single pill can cause a fatal overdose. Results may vary, as the pharmaceutical warning goes.
Developed by a shadow government defense contractor in a program headed by Gardner (Amy Landecker), a scientist with little concern for human casualties, the pill has been tested on military units. One of those lab rats was Art (Jamie Foxx), aka the Major, who has passed on genetic modifications acquired during the testing to his daughter Tracy (Kyanna Simpson) through a process akin to fetal alcohol syndrome. In a touch that’s schematic but functional, Robin has been learning about that condition in high school.
Tomlin’s script alludes to the imbalance of a system that aims to monopolize rather than disseminate power by choosing a city with a large minority population like New Orleans as ground zero before the wider rollout of a pill being developed to spread chaos and topple governments. The theme of America’s systemic power structures is reinforced as mutual trust develops between Art and Robin. She responds to him like the father figure she’s been missing. When she reveals her dream of becoming a rapper, he encourages her to nurture her power as the gift that makes her special. “You’re young. You’re Black. You’re a woman,” he tells her. “The system is designed to swallow you whole.”
Given that the cops are being sidelined in their investigation of the drug by unidentified government agents, Frank argues with his precinct chief Captain Craine (Courtney B. Vance) that “counting on guys in suits to look out for New Orleans” hasn’t worked out so well in the past. Frank risks his badge when he pops a power pill to stop a bank robber, but Craine gives him some leeway, provided he can bring in the Major, who is believed to be the main distribution source.
Having established a trio of principal characters in gray moral areas — drug-dealer, unorthodox cop, ex-soldier with PTSD and a murky agenda — the script deftly broadens our understanding of them as they form an alliance.
The lively interplay among all three keeps the movie humming, but it’s the scenes between Art and Robin that provide the heart. No dis to Gordon-Levitt, whose wiry physicality and easygoing charm are a valuable part of the package, but this definitely feels like a rare superpower flick driven by Black characters. Foxx is charismatic and effortlessly funny, without shortchanging the tortured side of Art’s bitter experience. And Fishback, so good at playing bruised, street-smart young women on HBO’s The Deuce and in the lovely indie drama Night Comes On, mixes innocence, quick-thinking savvy and snark here to disarming effect. An interlude in which Robin dresses Art’s wounds at a veterinary clinic is especially sweet.
The 8 Mile thread of Robin’s ambitions as a spoken-word artist is a little undernourished, but her freestyling complements the pounding techno pulse of Joseph Trapanese’s score and the soundtrack’s liberal sprinkling of hip-hop and R&B. Robin’s lyrics are written (and performed in the catchy end-credits song) by rising-star rapper Chika, who makes an amusing appearance as her high-school classmate.
While the villains could have been more multidimensional (the wonderful Landecker is given too little to do), Joost and Schulman allow the main characters room to breathe even as they keep the pedal to the metal for much of the brisk run time. Jeff McEvoy’s nimble editing on an early chase scene with Frank on a bike brings an adrenaline charge that recalls Gordon-Levitt’s role in Premium Rush. Foxx gets a virtuoso scene of mass destruction when he tracks down Newt tossing back human-fireball pills like Tic Tacs in a crumbling apartment block.
The most explosive set-piece is a demonstration staged by Biggie in a basement nightclub (YouTube star Casey Neistat turns up here), where Art’s inconvenient arrival prompts all kind of pill-popping and violence. And the action builds to a tense climax on the cargo boat, which also serves as a lab for human and animal experimental trials. There’s a cool mix here of digital effects and visceral hand-to-hand combat, notably when Foxx takes on contortionist Xavier Day and silat fighter Yoshi Sudarso. Cinematographer Michael Simmonds’ muscular shooting style supplies the agile intensity these scenes demand.
It’s easy enough to pick plot holes in Project Power and trace the inspiration for many of its ideas back to earlier movies or comics. But there’s a long line of hits that have found an appreciative audience despite charges of unoriginality. The vigorous handling and appealing cast make this Henry & Rel joint a dizzying blast, with enough loose threads to allow for a sequel if it clicks.
Production company: Screen Arcade, Supermarché
Cast: Jamie Foxx, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Dominique Fishback, Rodrigo Santoro, Colson Baker, Allen Maldonado, Amy Landecker, Courtney B. Vance, Kyanna Simpson, Andrene Ward-Hammond, Casey Neistat, Jazzy De Lisser, Rose Bianco
Directors: Henry Joost, Ariel Schulman
Screenwriter: Mattson Tomlin
Producers: Eric Newman, Bryan Unkeless
Executive producers: Ray Angelic, Orlee-Rose Strauss
Director of photography: Michael Simmonds
Production designer: Naomi Shohan
Costume designer: Sharen Davis
Music: Joseph Trapanese, Chika
Editor: Jeff McEvoy
VFX supervisor: Ivan Moran
Special effects supervisor: Yves Debono
Casting: John Papsidera
Rated R, 113 minutes