Project Power movie review: Jamie Foxx, Joseph Gordon Levitt thriller is a tough pill to swallow

Project Power feels more like a refreshment of superhero films and series past than a whole meal.

Prahlad Srihari August 15, 2020 09:37:58 IST

2.5/5

In Project Power, after Dominique Fishback's Robin partners up with Jamie Foxx's Art in a crusade against drug dealers, she equates them to comic books' most famous crime-fighting duo, Batman and Robin. With dramatic irony, Art serves her a reality check that shatters any pretense of the movie taking itself too seriously: "We ain't Batman and Robin. That's a movie, this is real life."

If we could find a positive in Netflix's new superhero debacle, it is that: it is comfortable in its own skin. With everything that is happening around us, the streaming giant continues to churn out faux blockbusters that allow us to escape from the real world momentarily. But unlike the more competent superhero fare, it does not quite serve as an empowering response to tragedy, or even capture our desire, nay need, to be saved. Watching Project Power may begin as a short rush, which slows down turning into a sense of dissociation before ending in the sinking emptiness of having wasted nearly two hours on another mindless spectacle. Side effects may also include deja vu, the occasional heart palpitation and a restless propensity to skip to the bits with Fishback and Foxx.

At the centre of Project Power is a new designer drug, which the bad guy in the opening scene supplies to the summoned dealers for free. Newt, one of the dealers played by Machine Gun Kelly, quizzes him further on this "too-good-to-be-true" deal, before enquiring its name. "Power," comes the reply. That's what it is. Literally. Synthesised, packaged, and ready-to-use in a glowing little capsule. Once activated and swallowed, the capsule unlocks in its consumer a superhuman ability. In some cases, the capsule can be deadly. But when it is not, it can make you immune to bullets like Superman, ignite like the Human Torch, or manipulate ice like Elsa. Each person responds differently, with their ability tied to the genetic potential hidden in their DNA. But there is a catch: the effect only lasts for five minutes. It is Limitless with limits, or like something out of a Mark Millar comic. 

Project Power movie review Jamie Foxx Joseph Gordon Levitt thriller is a tough pill to swallow

Jamie Foxx and Dominique Fishback in a still from Project Power

Directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman then pull a six-week time jump after its introduction, by when the streets of New Orleans are flooded with Power. With the drug empowering the previously powerless, there is so much crime and chaos New Orleans starts to resemble Gotham. Trying to clean up this drug-infested, crime-ridden city is Frank Shaver (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a police officer who soon realises he must fight fire with fire: he consumes the drug himself to level the playing field with these criminals. He is joined by Robin, a plucky high-schooler and wannabe rapper who is forced to sell drugs to take care of her sick mother, and Art, an ex-soldier who is on a mission to track down his missing daughter. As the trio hunt their way to the top of the food chain, it brings them face-to-face with rogue government operatives and the evil defense contractor behind the development of the drug.

Unfortunately, the film barely skims the surface of its thematic concerns: the government's failure to look out for its own citizens post-Hurricane Katrina, an ex-military man exploited and then abandoned by his country, or a young girl forced to sell drugs to pay for her mother’s healthcare. As Art tells Robin, "You're young, you're Black, you're a woman. The system is designed to swallow you whole." In these serio-comic conversations between Robin and Art, the film occasionally gets political, indicating how the system (be it education, economic or criminal justice) is rigged against the minorities. In a stinging rap about the "system", Robin sings about how it was not built for people like her to thrive.

The film also fails to explore how drugs disproportionally affect the poor and disenfranchised. It takes a cynical route like The Boys, suggesting superpowers do not always translate to selflessness — and how a taste of it will usually drive the pursuit for more. If the poor and disenfranchised indulge in five-minute fantasies of power, the rich and corrupt are willing to do anything to preserve theirs. Remember the whole thing starts off as an experiment to use New Orleans as their personal laboratory, testing a new drug on the poor like they were guinea pigs.

Project Power movie review Jamie Foxx Joseph Gordon Levitt thriller is a tough pill to swallow

Jamie Foxx and Joseph Gordon-Levitt in a still from Project Power

Rather than indict the political institutions unable to protect and serve the interests of the poor, the education system which fails youth from low-income communities, or the corruption that enables illicit drug trade, the film focuses on various exhibitions of superpowers.

It is really just to show off some cool special effects, put some of that sweet Netflix money to good use for audiences expecting Marvel-standard mayhem.

A standout set-piece involves Frank chasing a Power-enabled bank robber who can blend into his surroundings like a chameleon. Otherwise, it is your usual crash-bang-wallop fare. 

The spec script from Mattson Tomlin, who also co-wrote the screenplay for Matt Reeves' The Batman, feels more like a refreshment of superhero films and series past than a whole meal. Like its super-drugged predecessors Limitless and Lucy, the creative fireworks it promised in the trailer fizzles out over feature-length. With Extraction, The Old Guard, and now Project Power, it is clear Netflix wants to establish itself as the new home of the blockbuster. Truth is its executives or perhaps its algorithm could certainly do with a dose of Power to churn out some better movies.

Rating: **1/2

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