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There’s something so disheartening about a wasted premise. To see a film or series take a great idea and almost willfully turn it into something as generic as Netflix’s “Project Power” somehow hurts more than just seeing a thin concept revealed to not have enough to carry a feature film. In terms of both actual storytelling and subtext, there’s so much that the creators of “Project Power” could have done, but they chose the path of least resistance, turning a story of reclaimed control and buried human strength into a dull action movie that only gets by on the charisma of its stars and speediness of its filmmaking. It’s almost like they were afraid to unleash the power within their own project.
Imagine if there was a drug that could make you a superhero for five minutes. You don’t know what power will be unleashed until you take it the first time. You might burst into flames that don’t hurt you but light everything around you on fire. You might become invincible. You might just explode. Would you try it? What would the power structure of society do with this ability to form instant superheroes (and supervillains), and, more interestingly, what would it do to communities of people who have had power stripped from them over generations?
One place in which power structures were clearly clarified by tragedy is New Orleans, the setting for “Project Power.” Someone is releasing this drug into poor communities still cleaning up from Hurricane Katrina, and it’s leading to total chaos. Take for example the criminal who discovers that taking the drug makes him a high-powered chameleon, someone who can blend into any environment and basically become an invisible bank robber. In arguably the film’s best action scene, an NOPD officer named Frank (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) chases this modern invisible man through the crowded streets as his target blends into everything around him (it’s one of the few times one can see the reported $85 million-dollar budget here). He’s a cop on the edge, not only willing to try the product that’s tearing apart his community but to ignore orders from his superior to get to the top of the supply line. And his Saints jersey shows how much he loves his city. (Gleason, of course.)
As Frank works his way down the drug chain, he crosses paths with Art (Jamie Foxx), someone with a clear personal attachment to the nefarious industry. After the explosive death of a dealer, Art ends up essentially partnering with a girl named Robin (Dominique Fishback) while a villainous figure named Biggie (Rodrigo Santoro) lurks in the background. You see, the drug has been being refined by the Powers That Be in poor communities across the country—a fascinating idea given this nation’s history with health care and experimentation, but writer Mattson Tomlin does just about nothing with it beyond the superficial, turning the villains in “Project Power”—a woefully miscast Amy Landecker shows up to glare in the final act—into classic action archetypes.
Every time that “Project Power” threatens to become something more engaging and interesting, it pulls back from that edge. There’s something driven in Foxx’s performance that belongs in a better movie—he does a lot here with very little—and there’s an energy to Henry Joost & Ariel Schulman’s direction that teeters back and forth between propulsive and desperate. It’s a movie that could have worked if it went off the edge like a “Crank” sequel and there are times when it feels like it’s just about to do that, such as in a ridiculous action sequence shot from an unexpected POV, but then it stops itself. Oh yeah, we have a lot of Netflix money at work here, we better not take any actual risks.
And this lack of risk-taking extends to the themes and characters. A cop who has to take a drug to feel safe; a Black man whose family has been ripped apart after he served his country—this is rich thematic ground ... in which nothing has been planted. It’s like someone poured out a bag of great ideas on the table in the writers’ room and the team then actively tried to shape that into the most generic action movie possible. Give me a twist. Give me something unexpected narratively. Give me a bad guy. Give me something thematically dense. Anything!
In a normal summer, “Project Power” might feel like an interesting alternative to big-budget movies playing at multiplexes across the country. As it is, we didn’t get major action blockbusters this year, and so it will likely be more of an oasis than it would have been otherwise. Who doesn’t need some whiz-bang escapism in August 2020? However, as the power of this project dissipates, ask yourself what you could have done with the concept, cast, and budget. After all, true power is in how you use it.
Available tomorrow on Netflix.