Premise: A thousand 17-year-old boys from Texas join together to build a representative government from the ground up.
Netflix’s Project Power gives summer 2020 movie audiences a much needed infusion of blockbuster entertainment and superpowered action. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Jamie Foxx, and Dominique Fishback make up a strong triumvirate in a story that’s exciting and filled with varied big-budget set pieces. Directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman create impressive action sequences and Mattson Tomlin’s script provides an engaging plot with sympathetic yet flawed characters, despite some missteps along the way.
Set in New Orleans, Project Power tells the street level story of the rise of a unique new drug; a “power pill” that gives the user five minutes of a superpower. They have no control over what the superpower is and, in some cases, the pill will cause people to just outright explode. Each person’s superpower is unique to themselves and does not change with subsequent doses. As the film progresses, the bigger picture of the “power” drug comes into focus and expands through the street level entry point in an engaging way that’s paced well as screen time is divided amongst the three leads.
The visual effects start the film off with a bang as the first instance we see of a character taking the power pill involves them transforming into a horrific body horror version of the Human Torch. As every surface of the character’s body is engulfed in flames, he chases another character through narrow hallways and units in an apartment building. This sets the stage for a unique “superpower” movie experience. Instead of creating a scenario where people take the pill and simply become overpowered against our protagonists, the gamble of taking a drug that may (at worst) instantly kill you or (at best) make you feel intense pain and body contortions for five minutes, ups the stakes significantly.
Telling its story through the perspective of three unique characters helps keep the audience engaged and the tension consistent. Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Frank is a somewhat grizzled detective who uses the pill himself to better perform his duties on the job. There are elements of noir-ish antics to be found in Frank and his dialogue sparring with Dominique Fishback is definitely one of the high points of the movie. Jamie Foxx’s performance as “The Major” gives the film its emotional crux as he searches for answers while on his own personal mission after experiencing a past trauma. The way his storyline ties into the overall plot is satisfying and ties things together nicely.
Dominique Fishback’s performance as Robin is what brings Frank and the Major together. She’s a teenaged aspiring rapper who deals “power” to help pay for her mother’s diabetes medicine. She also happens to be Frank’s dealer and when a relative of hers gets into the Major’s sights, it’s not long before the three leads’ storylines intersect. The three of them play off each other well, especially when the motives of the Major are called into question by Frank and vice versa.
As overall satisfying as Project Power is, there were some slight misfires in the storytelling. The backstory of Robin wanting to be a rapper and having to overcome her stage fright feels very disconnected from the rest of the movie and doesn’t play into the story with any significance. Likewise, Frank’s use of the “power pill” in the course of doing his job doesn’t play out like a drug user trying to control a habit. In fact, it’s laughed off with a wink, a smile, and a line late in the movie where he tells Robin that his superpower achieved through drug use is “pretty cool, right?” As entertaining as Gordon-Levitt is in the role and as snappy as his dialogue is with Fishback throughout the film, this felt awkward and out of place.
Still, the good in Project Power far outweighs the bad. In a film filled with stylish action, there’s one particular set piece that stands out above the rest. As brutal action takes place in a room, the camera’s perspective shifts to inside an enclosed space where a “power” user is experiencing harsh side effects. We see the action unfold in the periphery of this character’s horrific experience. It’s an incredible sequence and a brilliant meld of action and horror.
Even if the summer 2020 movie season wasn’t victim to a global pandemic, it’s easy to imagine Project Power offering audiences a respite from franchise and blockbuster fatigue in its own way. The film has charismatic leads occupying the playground of an original story that offers the effects, stunts, and action of the summer blockbuster without the baggage of decades’ worth of source material and toxic, entitled fans. Seeing as we are navigating this strangely dampered summer movie season, Project Power is an entertaining and fun action movie with some very impressive set pieces to enjoy.
Project Power premieres Friday, August 14th on Netflix
About the Writer: Matt Hurt is the creator of ObsessiveViewer.com. He also created, hosts, and produces The Obsessive Viewer, Anthology, and Tower Junkies podcasts. He is a member of the Indiana Film Journalists Association and lives in Indianapolis with his cat Pizza Roll.