Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | August 13th, 2020
Project Power (Henry Joost/Ariel Schulman, 2020) 2½ out of 4 stars.
It’s best not to think too much about the central plot device in Project Power, from writer Mattson Tomlin (Little Fish) and directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman (Viral), for very little makes sense if one does. Better to focus on the characters, in particular Robin, played by lead actress Dominique Fishback (Night Comes On), who gives the comic-book silliness both gravitas and humanity in her role as a high-school student caught up in a dangerous game. Jamie Foxx (Just Mercy) and Joseph Gordon-Levitt (7500) lend their talents to the affair, as well, the former as a former soldier on a rescue mission and the latter as a New Orleans cop with questionable behavior. Though both men are good, Foxx shines brighter, given that it’s a little tiresome, in the the year 2020, to watch a police officer heroically breaking rules. Time for a change in that trope, for sure. Still, it’s in the simple interactions between the three actors that Project Power is at its strongest, rather than in the ramshackle premise.
The story begins with the release of a new drug called “power,” peddled by various agents using New Orleans and other American cities as laboratories to test their product. You never know what will happen when you pop a pill, but if you’re lucky you end up with an amazing superpower that lasts for five minutes. Some people become a human fireball, while others double in size (and maybe gain alligator skin as they do), become bulletproof, develop the power to camouflage against all backgrounds, and more. The unfortunate ones explode, however, a not-so-minor drawback (hence the testing on live subjects). There is real money to be made here, but in the meantime, New Orleans is a mess, the criminal-minded wreaking havoc on the place and the police unable to keep up.
Robin, with no career prospects in site, beyond her skills at rapping which don’t currently earn her any money, has taken to peddling the stuff to get the funds she needs to help her diabetic mom. Because, you know, health care in America doesn’t come cheap. Gordon-Levitt’s Frank uses her as a supplier, since he figures the only way he can compete with the bad guys is to take the drug, himself, though his captain is not so happy when he finds out. Meanwhile, Foxx’s Art, whose motives we only later discover, is similarly tracking the source of the mayhem, though unlike Frank, he doesn’t actually touch the drug. We find out why at the end, but as we see along the way, he’s pretty good with a gun and with his fists, and has a plan, all of which help him get buy, though not without injury.
Project Power is the kind of shoot-’em-up movie with a lot of collateral damage, so if random people dying in gruesome ways is not your thing (though it is certainly cinematically common), you should steer clear. When it’s not killing random extras, however, it takes a decent stab at analyzing the social inequities of our society, offers some nicely diverse casting, and even brings in the legacy of Henrietta Lacks, to boot. But the drug at the heart of it all is just dumb, and though we are in science-fiction territory here, the manner it which it behaves is never explained in a satisfying way. As an audience, we can accept crazy, but your world-building should be solid. The irony in this fantastical tale is that far more attention is spent on the design of the real-life elements, while the supernatural parts are rushed through. Still, it’s mostly entertaining despite that flaw, so just sit back and enjoy the contact high.