Film Review – Project Power
Project Power (2020) has a lot of things going for it – superhero story, revenge tale, police procedural, social commentary, etc. It doesn’t really hit any of those topics in a meaningful way, but it has a relentless energy trying to get there. Like a battery charged up to 200%, it charges out of gate and refuses to let up. This is one of those instances where the entertainment value masks a lot of the shortcomings. It also helps that you have a group of performers all committed to being part of this ludicrous story. Is the movie dumb? Yes, but that doesn’t mean it’s not fun.
Written by Mattson Tomlin and co-directed by Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, the film plays like a mix between Limitless (2010), the lesser X-Men entries, and an acid trip. Is that a good thing or a bad thing? Answers may vary. The narrative hinges around the gimmick of a magical pill that, once taken, can endow a person with superhuman ability for five minutes. A person can be granted super strength, invisibility, bulletproof skin, and so on. There are two catches. The first is that a person doesn’t have control over the power they get – they won’t know what it is until they take the pill. The second is a little more severe: If a person has the wrong genetic makeup, there’s a chance the pill could make them spontaneously combust. Imagine being a person taking it for the first time. You may be able to fly or your guts will be splattered on the floor. Talk about a gamble, sheesh.
The drug is distributed amongst the low income, inner city areas of New Orleans as a kind of testing phase prior to going national. It’s here where themes regarding class, wealth inequality, and racial divisions are touched upon. It’s not a surprise that the name of the pill is called “Power” – representing the physical abilities it supplies as well as the power structure that looks to profit off of it. But the writing and direction isn’t clever enough to deeply explore those allegories – instead opting for in your face, hyper-kinetic action.
Jamie Foxx is Art, a former soldier who has a personal vendetta against the organization selling Power. Art utilizes his skill in killing people to slowly make his way up the ladder toward the head honchos. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is Frank, a good guy cop trying to take down the drug trade by fighting fire with fire. His willingness to use Power to catch criminals puts him in hot water with his superiors. Along for the ride is Robin (Dominique Fishback) a high school kid who dreams of being a successful rapper but whose money troubles and family issues has got her stuck in a tight spot. To make ends meet, Robin sells Power on the street while acting as an informant for Frank.
The plot is fairly standard, taking an episodic approach as our protagonists get into increasingly dangerous situations. Each subsequent action scene gets more outlandish, incorporating more CGI that is not convincing. In fact, the special effects are so artificial that it looks like it was made back in the early 2000s. The film just came out and it already looks dated. During an early chase scene, the rendering makes the physical movements appear rubbery, as though the characters are doing an impression of Stretch Armstrong. In another set piece a character swallows a pill and then grows in mass, stumbling and crashing into things like an awkward and less believable version of The Hulk.
Things get much better when things settle down and feature more hand to hand, face to face fighting. Jamie Foxx takes much of the spotlight here, as Art’s whole world is defined by violence. There’s a nice little touch where the editing will occasionally cut to a flashback of Art’s life before tragedy struck, giving him just enough of a personal stake to generate our empathy. Contrast that with Gordon-Levitt’s Frank, who’s unfortunately more of a one note character. Frank loves his city and will do anything for it. If we don’t get that right away, him constantly wearing a New Orleans Saints football jersey will clear up the confusion. Robin is stuck somewhere in between. The need for financial security is her primary goal, but sadly her story mostly takes a back seat to everyone else.
In terms of an engaging story, impressive action, character depth, and a memorable villain, Project Power falters. So why did I like it? The biggest reason is tone. There is a breathless, no-holds-barred approach that Tomlin provides in the script and Joost/Schulman give in the direction. It’s as though the narrative itself took a pill and is in constant overdrive for two hours. Sometimes, this style can be exhausting (see Michael Bay for the last two decades) but there’s something here that separates it from being outright dreadful. There’s an earnest, maybe even desperate, drive to hold our attention. Is it completely successful doing that? No, but I appreciate the effort.