With as much content as they produce, it is only natural that the quality of Netflix’s original movies can vary significantly. At the bottom end are what feel like category-fillers, transparently designed to fit an algorithmic-niche, while unique, auteur-driven works by directors as prominent as Martin Scorsese and Alfonso Cuaron make for a very high peak. After watching Project Power, the streamer’s latest release, I’ve realized many of the films that fall between those extremes have a similar blueprint: take an interesting concept, drop it into a formulaic story-structure, and see what the filmmakers can do with it. Even in the case of a net-positive viewing experience (such as the recently reviewed The Old Guard), the final product is frustratingly underachieved, incapable of living up to the initial intrigue its premise inspires. Project Power is, unfortunately, a prime example.
Co-directed by Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, Project Power begins with a new drug being released on the streets of New Orleans that makes the user superpowered for five minutes. The abilities granted by the glowing yellow pill vary from person to person, and some are less stable than others (simply exploding on ingestion is always a risk for first-timers), but the drug quickly takes hold of the city. With officials seemingly in the pocket of the shadowy manufacturer, three individuals must take it on themselves to prevent its cataclysmic spread: Robin (Dominique Fishback), a young dealer with a heart of gold; Frank (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a rogue policeman who believes in fighting fire with fire; and Art (Jamie Foxx), an ex-military man determined to recover his kidnapped daughter.
Of all the stories that could have emerged from this concept, an action-thriller is both the most obvious and least ambitious, especially in our current moment of superhero-saturation. By paying lip service to a number of ideas in between fight scenes, the script actually reminds you of this as you watch. The historic exploitation the underprivileged for scientific advancement? The institutional mistrust of post-Katrina New Orleans? The stifling effects of systemic racism? All briefly mentioned, and a superpower drug is an interesting lens for exploring any of them. Instead, too much time is spent explaining the pill itself when contemporary audiences are fully prepared to take the existence of that kind of thing for granted. For at least this viewer, watching Project Power means spending half a day imagining the better films that could have been.
That is not to say that the film they made is terrible— storytelling formulas offer reliable functionality over creative risk/reward, and at worst they are a platform for other elements of filmmaking to shine. Joost and Schulman attempt to take advantage with a stylized visual approach but have only middling success, resulting in a couple standout scenes that aren’t enough to lift the whole experience above average. While Foxx and Fishback do their best to give their characters some life, they are obviously struggling against thinness on the page, to which the supporting cast (particularly the villains) can’t help but succumb. Project Power is mildly entertaining, and you won’t really regret sitting down to watch it. For some ideas, mildly entertaining is a positive outcome, maybe even all they can hope for. For this one, it’s a definite disappointment.
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