Virtuous superheroes get all the good press, but “Project Power” makes a pretty logical point with its central premise: If pills really existed that gave human beings superpowers, isn’t it more likely that the people who used those powers would be up to no good?
That’s the world posited by screenwriter Mattson Tomlin and directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman in “Project Power,” an imaginative, garish, occasionally corny and generally entertaining riff on the superhero genre.
Set in a hyperstylized New Orleans and shot in a way that puts a slightly lurid, greasy sheen over everything, the amped-up genre flick suggests that if people could suddenly find themselves able to break through walls, blend into their surroundings and outrun police cars, they might use those powers not to fight crime, but to rob banks and get away by outrunning police cars.
It’s a world in which superpowers inevitably lead to chaos with a side of profiteering – which, given the state of the world today, is probably a pretty good guess. And even if it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense much of the time, “Project Power” has the folks it needs to sell the premise in Jamie Foxx, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Dominique Fishback as an unlikely trio out to keep everything from going to hell.
Gordon-Levitt plays Frank, a New Orleans cop who’s doing his best to cope with a city where the drug trade has suddenly been transformed by an influx of shiny pills that go by the name of “Power,” because that’s exactly what they deliver. The problem is, a user doesn’t know what kind of power it will be: The pill makes you a superhero for five minutes with powers based on adaptations that have been made in the animal kingdom, but you don’t know until you take it if the pill will make you super strong or super fast or turn you into a chameleon or let you burst into flame and scorch everybody around you.
Or, by the way, it might just make you explode and die.
Frank figures that the only way to keep up with the bad guys is to keep a stock of his own pills, which make him bulletproof. And before long, with the aid of an aspiring teenage rapper and part-time drug dealer named Robin, he finds himself on the trail of “the Major,” an ex-soldier he’s told is the source of all the Power in New Orleans.
The Major, though, is actually named Art, he’s played by Jamie Foxx and he’s not the source of anything, except maybe a world of hurt for anybody who gets in his way. The real story, he tells Frank, is that Power was developed by a defense contractor who tested it on a bunch of soldiers (including Art) and is now using the unwitting New Orleans populace as lab rats to make the drug more manageable and more sellable.
The mysterious organization, which goes by the name of Teleios and clearly has government ties, has also kidnapped Art’s daughter, Tracy (Kyanna Simpson), who may have been born with the much-coveted next step, “permanent power.” So Art, Frank and Robin take on the shadowy government organization and a slew of villains who are either heavily armed or inhumanly strong.
You could think of “Project Power” as a small-group-against-the-world action movie, except for those crazy special powers that can turn hand-to-hand combat in a rundown apartment building into a version of Gandalf’s fight against the Balrog in “The Lord of the Rings,” minus the magic wand and the shiny whip. Or you could think of it as a superhero movie, except that the filmmakers are determined to sink into the grit and make points about profit motives and the way Black people and poor inner-city residents have been viewed as dispensable.
But sci-fi and social commentary have long been comfortable bedfellows, so “Project Power” is an easy genre hybrid that has fun making pointed social commentary and getting crazy while it does so. Dark and wet and garish – if it’s not raining in any particular scene, it either just did or it’s about to – it makes superpowers seem like a very bad thing in the wrong hands. And it makes it clear that just about any hand that wants to grab them is indeed a wrong hand.
It’s not always coherent, but sometimes that’s the point: When Art infiltrates a demonstration of the Power pill for a potential South American buyer, the ensuing fight turns into such utter chaos that it becomes impossible to figure out who’s doing what to whom. But the inability to follow what’s going on during the fight actually allows for a cool reveal at the end when we see who’s survived … and then it gets silly when this movie’s version of the Hulk makes an appearance to smash things.
Still, what’s a movie like this without a hefty dose of silliness? And the filmmakers know enough to poke a little fun at themselves: When Robin explains that she tagged along with Art because “I thought we were like Batman and Robin,” he snaps, “There’s no Batman and Robin. That was a movie. This is real life.”
Well, no, it’s not. But with real life on hold, you might get a kick out of this newest release from what the film’s trailer points out is “the studio that brought you ‘Extraction’ and ‘The Old Guard.’” Netflix has indeed found a niche in adrenalized action flicks that’ll keep you entertained during lockdown while providing a little more nuance than you might expect, and “Project Power” fits right into that niche.