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Project Power (2020)

DIRECTOR: Ariel Schulman, Henry Joost

CAST: Jamie Foxx, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Dominique Fishback

REVIEW:

Project Power is at least an attempt to do something a little different and original; an entry in the superhero genre (sort of) that’s not based on a comic book or preexisting property, and tackles superpowers as a thinly-veiled (very thinly) drug allegory. Were that the results were more memorable….Project Power, while an entertaining enough diversion for the undemanding, feels generic and half-baked and fails to utilize a potentially unique and intriguing premise to its full potential.

The premise sets up a small ensemble of characters whose plotlines intersect in New Orleans, brought about by a drug cartel with pharmaceutical backers (though the details are a little hazy) carrying out “clinical trials” of a drug called “Power” which grants its users superpowers, using the people of New Orleans as lab rats to refine and perfect their product to sell to the highest bidder. There’s two catches: your powers only last for five minutes per pill, so set your timer and make the most of it at an opportune moment, and it’s the luck of the draw what superpower you’re going to end up with. Some people “flame on” like The Human Torch (though unlike him, they don’t come out unscathed), some are bulletproof, others are superhumanly fast or strong, while some unlucky few have a bad reaction and spontaneously combust (one of those “kinks” its makers are trying to work out). Teenage aspiring rapper and drug dealer Robin (Dominique Fishback) peddles Power on the street to make ends meet for herself and her sickly mother, which leads her to a run-in with a mysterious hard-ass known only as “The Major” (Jamie Foxx), who’s on the warpath against Project Power and trying to work his way up the food chain to get back what—or who—they stole from him, and forces Robin to help him. And as the night goes on, both Robin and The Major’s paths cross with maverick detective Frank (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), who’s secretly taking Power himself to level the playing field and is under the mistaken belief that The Major is the drug lord he’s looking for.

Project Power‘s biggest problem is that everything, from the premise to the characters to the individual plotlines, feels half-baked and underdeveloped and skimmed through. It could be any one of three movies—an offbeat coming-of-age story about an unconventional drug dealer (given Robin is the most interesting character, this might have been the most interesting route to go), a Payback-style crime thriller about a vengeful hard-ass taking down a crime syndicate, souped-up with a superpowers twist, or a cop drama about a detective going rogue to take down a drug cartel. Rather than focusing on any one storyline though, it mashes up all three into one movie, then doesn’t give any of them enough development. This is the kind of thing that feels like it might have worked better in a television miniseries that got more time to draw everything out; squeezing it into a two hour movie feels rushed and shallow.

Of the various action sequences, the most memorable involve a tussle between Jamie Foxx and a flaming Machine Gun Kelly, and a nifty street chase with Joseph Gordon-Levitt pursuing a chameleon who instantaneously blends in with his surroundings. Alas, both come fairly early on, and the rest of the action is generic fights and shootouts. Directors Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost aren’t experienced with helming action sequences and don’t seem to have a good grasp on them, so they feel perfunctory and clumsily-choreographed. Mattson Tomlin’s script also falls into the traps of predictability and failure to mix things up with any surprises or twists. It’s stuff we can see coming a mile away when a “buddy movie” dynamic forms with Robin first being The Major’s unwilling kidnapping victim, then becoming his teen sidekick, and when The Major and his pursuer Detective Frank eventually join forces (a turn-around on Frank’s part that feels like it comes a little too quickly and easily). Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Courtney B. Vance (as his police captain) get to give their own rendition of the “turn in your badge and your gun” scene. Unsurprisingly given the premise, there’s a little social commentary about the drug epidemic, but it’s mostly shallow window dressing. The script resorts to a bit of a deus ex machina to finish things off. There is at least one dangling plot thread left open-ended enough to provide a possible sequel, but only time will tell.

Project Power is headlined by a couple of “names”, but neither Jamie Foxx nor Joseph Gordon-Levitt give standout performances. Foxx has shown he can play a role straight (most recently in Just Mercy), but there’s times when we don’t quite buy him as the bad-ass he’s meant to be, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt feels a bit weak; some of the blame might belong to his thinly-written character, but there’s also times when his heart doesn’t quite seem to be in it (he had more conviction in his recent role in 7500). The best performance in the movie comes from newcomer Dominique Fishback, who brings spunk and energy to a glorified sidekick (she also gets to show off her knack for rapping). Project Power lacks any strong villains. The “big bad” (Rodrigo Santoro) and the bigger bad (Amy Landecker) are little-seen and thinly-developed.

Project Power feels like a bit of a squandered opportunity; the premise is intriguing and there’s a couple fun scenes, but it feels half-baked and shallowly underexplored. It’s good enough for a couple hours of undemanding diversion, but on the whole, it’s no more than middling passable entertainment.

* * 1/2

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