‘Project Power’ shuts down a clever premise

Last Friday, movie theaters opened their doors for the first time in what felt like forever. All across the country — or rather, across certain parts of it — you could have seen “Unhinged,” a road rage B-movie starring Russell Crowe. You could have, but evidently you did not.

Netflix is counting on your caution. While major studios have wasted the pandemic playing chicken with their calendars, Netflix has quietly mined a bottomless reservoir of content. Since March, the streaming giant has been releasing a new movie or show every week — sometimes both! — as if COVID-19 doesn’t exist. Today’s offering: “Project Power,” a down-and-dirty superhero story starring Jamie Foxx and Joseph Gordon-Levitt. It’s not very good. But “not very good” is different than “not very fun.”

That’s because “Project Power,” messy as it may be, is stupidly entertaining. I don’t quite know how it’s possible. The parts don’t fit together like they should — the acting veers from great to gruesome, the budget encumbers the visual style and the script throws away a clever premise. But what a premise!

The film takes place in a world where superpowers are a new kind of high. A drug on the black market promises its user five minutes of “power” (hence its street name). It “hits different” for different people: some turn to ice, others burst into flames and a few just blow up and die. Okay then. The movie begins as the drug hits the shores of New Orleans, a surprisingly specific location with which the film does next to nothing. In fact, it looks like the city in every Jamie Foxx thriller.

Speaking of Foxx, he stars as Art, an ex-military man who’s tracking the drug for reasons I cannot reveal. He’s basically Bayou Batman. His Robin? Well, that would be Robin (Dominique Fishback). She’s peddling power to make money for her mother, whose diabetes is racking up the bills. That’s how they meet, and once they uncover the true nature of the drug, they must team up with the only straight cop in the city (Gordon-Levitt) to stop it.

You probably rolled your eyes while reading that. I don’t blame you — “Project Power” takes an interesting idea and Hollywood-izes it. But it’s super well-paced, moving at a brisk speed without forgetting to breathe. The action sequences also deliver, making great use of the pill’s unpredictable powers and really leaning into the hard R rating. For two hours, I was entertained, and for a lot of people that will be enough.

The film was directed by Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, the guys who made “Catfish,” the third and fourth installments of “Paranormal Activity” and “Nerve.” “Project Power” is kind of like “Nerve” as a Netflix Original — throw some “Bright” in there and you’ve got it. The truth is, you’ve seen this movie before. You’ve seen Netflix Originals just like it in the last few months. The film fails to carve out a niche of its own; that might have to do with the budget, which clearly doesn’t match the directors’ ambitions with lackluster, half-formed VFX.

The performances are equally inconsistent. Jamie Foxx is Jamie Foxx; Joseph Gordon-Levitt is solid, but punching below his weight. The real standout is Dominique Fishback, who brings complexity and authenticity to a character who’s otherwise thinly written. But the villains are just plain abysmal — they twirl their mustaches so hard, they might as well rip the hair off their faces. Oh, and Machine Gun Kelly is in this. Again: okay then.

And yet … I liked it? I was never bored. No, I was entertained. There’s a lesson in here somewhere — about how movies don’t have to be good for you to enjoy them, about how a good-bad movie is as well worth your time as a great one. Unfortunately, I’ve already forgotten “Project Power.” 4/10

This review was originally published on August 25, 2020 in The Observer, the daily newspaper of the University of Notre Dame. You can read it here.

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