When Netflix announced a new action movie starring Oscar winner Jamie Foxx (“Ray”), Joseph Gordon-Levitt (“Inception”) and interesting newcomer Dominque Fishback, my hungry-for-fresh-entertainment ears perked up a bit. The premise of the movie sounded intriguing; there is a new drug on the streets of New Orleans that, when ingested, gives a person superpowers for (exactly) five minutes. In short, a microwave mutagen. Co-directed by Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, with a screenplay by Mattson Tomlin (of the upcoming “The Batman” reboot), I thought there might be potential for a good night’s entertainment with this film.
I was wrong.
My first guess was that this film didn’t see the light of theatrical release due to the current COVID-19 pandemic, which makes perfect sense. Many major studios are turning their works over to video-on-demand services, limited (pandemic-safe) drive-in theatre releases or releasing them straight to streaming services, taking a profit loss for the sake of exposure. After seeing “Project Power,” I’m now thinking the movie was denied a theatrical release because….well, it just wasn’t very good.
The movie opens in the near-future at the Port of New Orleans, where a shipping container containing precious cargo is opened to an assembled crowd of young street dealers. There is a new drug called ‘Power’ (which looks like a radioactive cold capsule) that a mustachioed, South American distributor named ‘Biggie’ (Rodrigo Santiago of “Westworld”) wants spread across the city.
Some of the dealers are just kids, with one of them a young high schooler named Robin (charismatic Dominique Fishback), who deals drugs only to supply her single diabetic mother (Andrene Ward-Hammond) with life-saving medications. While trying to distribute at a rundown amusement park, Robin is nearly killed by three Power addicts who want her supply but refuse to meet her price. She is saved by a motorbike-riding, ‘white-savior’ New Orleans cop named Frank (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) who is also one of her clients. Frank uses the drug to stop this new wave of criminals who are now able to perform superhuman acts. For her services, Frank gifts Robin with the motorbike (which he got from impound). There’s could been a very interesting relationship in a different sort of movie, but alas, this isn’t that movie.
We then cut to Art (Oscar winner Jamie Foxx) who is scouring New Orleans slums looking for leads to find his daughter. He knocks on the door of an infamous local Power dealer (powerbroker? Hehe) named “Newt” (Machine Gun Kelly, aka Colson Baker). Pretending to be in the market for new stash, Art manipulates his way into Newt’s apartment (clearly Art is not a cop), where he notices burn marks everywhere, including a hole straight through the floor. When he corners the wily Newt, a chase ensues, and Newt ingests a Power capsule to become Johnny the Human Torch.
Newt only has five minutes to use this ability, so he leads Art on a smoky chase thought the slum house, finally getting caught and extinguished in a tab tub, where Art has temporarily stopped this human torch with…bath water. Apparently, a Power user’s abilities are like a drug user’s trip… there are good ones and bad ones. Sometimes one can also simply overdose and explode. An injured Art gets his lead from the soaked, defeated human torch and moves on…
We then see Robin’s cop friend Frank trying to stop a power-user who is committing a massive armed robbery using his five-minute rush in order to naturally camouflage with his environments. This dangerous human chameleon corners Frank, who’s also ingested a Power capsule, which he uses to become bulletproof. The suspect fires a bullet directly into Frank’s skull, which flattens the projectile upon impact. A momentarily stunned Frank quickly recovers, beats the suspect to a pulp, and cuffs him. Later, at the precinct, Frank’s no-nonsense captain (Courtney Vance) orders him to turn in his badge after realizing Frank is using the same drug as the criminals they’re stopping. Frank defends his taking Power with the logical argument that it’s the only way to level the playing field against turbocharged criminals. The hypocritical captain then reinstates his rogue cop and gives him a top-secret assignment. Taking a picture of Art from his desk, he tells Frank to find the guy. Frank takes the job, no questions asked.
We see in school that drug-dealer Robin is a very bright girl who is simply bored; she dreams of being a rapper and has an exceptional gift with freestyle. We see her daydreaming in class about throwing down with her class and stuffy teacher, but sadly, it’s just a dream. Getting a faked text message from Art, who is pretending to be her addict cousin Newt, Robin is told to meet him at the ‘usual place’ (a Church’s Chicken).
Determined to find his daughter, Art brutally abducts Robin in a genuinely disturbing scene as the young girl is violently tossed into the enclosed bed of Art’s pickup truck. He is going to use her to trace the drug’s connections through the city and find his daughter. Once again, I cannot stress how deeply disturbing it was to see a high-school aged character brutally and viciously man-handled by a middle-aged Jamie Foxx. After slowly bonding and learning to trust one another, Robin learns of Art’s dilemma with his missing daughter Tracy (Kyanna Simone Simpson); Tracy with born with innate mutant superpowers (no drug needed) after Art was used as a Power guinea pig during his time in the army. The big bad government is now using the city of New Orleans to test the drug’s abilities, and somehow (?) this will lead to them making armies of super-soldiers (dusting off that old “X-Files” subplot…). Meanwhile, Tracy is being held as leverage while decoding her mutant DNA in order to make more just like her.
Meanwhile, Frank meets up with his friend/connection Robin and immediately realizes she is lying to him about Art and his whereabouts. Robin pleads Art’s case to Frank, who realizes that maybe his own captain may be in on the conspiracy as well, since he chose Frank to singlehandedly subdue this guy… maybe he’s trying to get rid of them both? Now we have Art, Frank and Robin teaming up buddy-cop style to stop the big-bad Feds. The movie now ‘evolves’ into a super-powered “Lethal Weapon” with a side order of “Cop and a Half.”
Like I said, this movie leaves no crime drama cliche unchecked; the rogue cop, the embittered army vet, the kid informant, and the big government conspiracy. Just waiting for Mark Wahlberg to say, “Where the f–k is Ringo!?”
We then cut to a Power auction, where Biggie is giving a live demo of the drug to interested parties. A bell-bottomed test subject in a glass cell (like a 1960s go-go dancer) is given a superhuman ability to control her core temperature… but then her frozen parts begin to fall off (just like the liquid-nitrogen chilled T-1000 in “Terminator 2”). With the demo a bust, a fleeing Biggie takes his own medicine. Chased by Frank and Art, the wily dealer becomes Biggie-Hulk, sans green coloring. Biggie-Hulk is eventually killed after a brief chase (the CGI FX are generally competent, if not exceptional), and soon Art, Robin and Frank are back on the trail of “Teleios,” the shadow group which first developed Power, using various natural animal self-defense mechanisms (I never knew of an animal that survives using self-immolation, but whatevs… logic is not this movie’s strong suit). The action soon takes the trio back to the Port of New Orleans, because what self-respecting wannabe drug crime drama flick of the 1980s doesn’t end with a big shootout at the docks, right?
Once there, Art is captured by the big scary goon named Wallace (Tait Fletcher) who also happens to be the same big scary goon who abducted Tracy. The cargo ship leaves port (at this point, I barely even care why), with Robin and Frank (somehow?) navigating the ship. Wallace doses up on Power and forces Robin & Frank to leave the ship’s bridge. Frank helps Art escape; Art also has a capsule on standby, if needed, which he will, of course, for the movie’s big showdown (predictable as clockwork). Reunited, Art and Frank succeed in killing Power-Wallace, and Art comes face to face with one of the evil scientists behind Power, the clinically detached, bespectacled Dr. Gardner (Amy Landecker), who looks like every cliche scientist in every B-movie ever made. So help me, I’m surprised they didn’t stick a lab coat and/or stethoscope on her.
Appearing to surrender, Art instead ingests a Power capsule, which gives him the powers of a pistol shrimp (I’m not even going to Google it), which allows him to somehow defeat the bad guys and free Tracy. Unfortunately, such extreme use of Power kills Art, but since Tracy has the power of Force-healing (see: “Rise of Skywalker”), she brings Pops back to life, and all is well. I guess he was only mostly-dead?
Frank wants to go public with the story, while a grateful Art gives Robin his truck and some money to help her mother get the meds she needs (this is as close to commentary on our broken US healthcare system as the movie dares…).
Art and his now-freed daughter Tracy split.
The Worst of All Worlds.
Combining bottom rung crime melodrama with X-Men movie cliches (including a mustachioed drug dealer with a South American accent), this is a movie that wastes its A-list cast telling a tired story made almost entirely of recycled bits from “New Jack City”, “Lethal Weapon 2,” “Iron Man 3” and about a dozen Blockbuster Video staples from the late 1980s and early 1990s. There’s even a final confrontation aboard a cargo ship (see: “Lethal Weapon 2,” “Iron Man 3,” and “Rush Hour 2”, which all had some variation of this same finale). This is a movie seemingly crafted by young people who received their life experience to date entirely through watching action movies. Even Clint Eastwood references are tossed in this messy mix. While the slick action and visual effects are more than competently handled, there are no parts of this film that feel even remotely fresh or innovative. It’s a by-the-numbers drug crime-drama combined with X-Men super-shenanigans. The best things I can say about this film are that it boasts decent use of New Orleans locations, and a charming cast who deserved much better.
One of the biggest disappointments in “Project Power” (of many) is how superficially the experience of having superpowers is dealt with, even if only for a few minutes. The filmmakers could’ve taken the drug metaphor a step further and looked at the experience from the addict’s perspective. The only ‘addicts’ we meet are seedy lowlifes like Newt, or a woman ‘guinea pig’ in bell-bottoms writhing to death inside of a plexiglass cell. The drug’s users (unless they’re the ‘good guys,’ of course) are seen only as dangerous forces to be stopped. This is a shallow, outdated, Reagan-era view of the ‘war on drugs’ (ironic, since the government is seen as the force behind the drug’s distribution). In light of the recent decriminalization of marijuana in my own state and others in the United States, you’d think there’d be ample wiggle-room for the movie to explore the feeling of being high on superpowers, and how that invincible rush could lead to addiction. But nope, the movie chickens out. Power’s temporary abilities are just like gobbling an energy crystal in an old Pac-Man video game; a quick boost to be used as a tactical advantage, and nothing more.
The film could’ve richly explored the sensation of feeling superhuman, only to be followed by the inevitable crashing. What if the Hulk experienced agony when he reverted to Bruce Banner? What if Superman experienced withdrawals when away from the rays of our yellow sun? That could’ve been a far more compelling science fiction metaphor for the very real experience of drug addiction. But we’re never given insight into that experience. Instead, we’re given “Miami Vice” with microwavable mutants.
With its crippling lack of depth or insight, “Project Power” shorts itself out. Ultimately, the film is a slickly-packaged disappointment.
“Project Power” is available to stream safely at home on Netflix. To my readers, I once again wish you and all of your loved ones good health and strength during the current coronavirus pandemic. The current number of COVID-related deaths in the United States are just around or over 170,000 as of this writing. Meanwhile, there’s no vaccine or even effective treatment for COVID-19 as of yet. Yes, some businesses are reopening, but the overall situation is far from safe. So for the time being, please continue to practice social safe-distancing as often as you can, wear masks in public, and avoid overly crowded outings as much as possible.
Take care. Be COVID-safe & smart!