“Aren’t we all?” – Prescient exchange for our times, from “Project Power.”
Anyone can be a superhero in “Project Power.” All you have to do is take a magical glowing pill, and ZAM! BOOM! POW! Just like that, you’re invisible, or you have super-speed, or you can take a bullet to the head and it’ll bounce right off.
A few caveats:
A. You won’t know what your superpower will be until you take the “Power” pill.
B. Your super-duper skills will last only five minutes.
C. There’s a chance you won’t get any magic powers at all and the Power pill will backfire on you. Side effects include the possibility of bursting into flames, being frozen solid and/or death.
That’s the genius concept of the Netflix original movie “Project Power,” a vibrant and crazy and thought-provoking and immensely entertaining film that could have been even more resonant had it not settled for a relatively conventional final act we’ve seen in dozens of thrillers. (The docks. Why do we so often end up with someone being kidnapped and held on the docks, with the inevitable, extended shoot-out to follow?)
Set in a near-dystopian New Orleans where the criminals are running wild and the police force is seemingly powerless to do anything about it, “Project Power” features two veteran big-name stars in Jamie Foxx as Art, a former military man hell-bent on finding the source of the mysterious and chaos-creating Power pills, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Frank, a dedicated N.O.P.D. cop who loves to quote Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry but is hardly a vigilante.
But the real driving force of the plot is a teenage girl named Robin, a partner of sorts to Frank who works both sides of the game. Dominique Fishback (“The Hate U Give”) plays the world-weary and cynical but lionhearted Robin, who dreams of becoming a world-famous rap artist but finds herself plunged ever deeper into a corrupt and dangerous world. Fishback infuses Robin with an aura of sadness and cynicism but also quick humor and an inherent instinct for heroics, even though she would never call herself a hero. It’s a star-making performance.
“I need money NOW,” Robin says to Art, who questions the ethics of her dealing Power pills. “Everyone needs money now,” says Art. “My mother has diabetes NOW,” retorts Robin.
Directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, working from a script by red-hot writer Mattson Tomlin (whose upcoming projects include “The Batman” and the sci-fi romance “The Little Fish”), deliver screen-popping, brightly colored and explosive visuals, filled with frantic action sequences, most notably an early scene where Machine Gun Kelly’s Newt pops a Power pill and turns into a human fireball, and when Gordon-Levitt’s Frank violates police protocol and pops a pill in order to chase down a bank robber who is invisible — until the thief opens a sack of stolen cash and red dye explodes all over him. (In a neat touch, Gordon-Levitt wears a New Orleans Saints No. 37 jersey throughout the film, in honor of former Saints safety Steve Gleason, who is living with ALS aka Lou Gehrig’s Disease.)
“Project Power” is primarily a sci-fi action thriller, but there’s more than a sprinkling of social commentary, as when a frustrated Frank exclaims to his supervisor (Courtney V. Vance) about the feds taking over operations in his city: “We know what happened the last time guys in suits took over in New Orleans!” and Art encouraging Robin to explore her potential in unconventional ways that circumvent the traditional routes: “You’re young, you’re black, you’re a woman — the system is designed to swallow you whole.” And there are some welcome moments of light humor, as when Robin teases Frank about his penchant for quoting Clint Eastwood and Frank says she probably doesn’t even know who that is, and Robin cites “The Bridges of Madison County,” of all Eastwood films, and Frank concedes, “That actually was pretty good.”
Chicago’s invaluable Amy Landecker does what she can with an underwritten role; she manages to sound convincing even as she’s playing a garden-variety megalomaniac who veritably cackles with cruel glee even as her evil plan is crumbling all around her. All the “big” mysteries in “Project Power” are cleaned up in fairly predictable fashion, but the strength of the film is in those wild and wacky action sequences, and most of all in the unlikely bond between Robin and Frank, and then Robin and Art, and eventually Robin and Art and Frank — three classic anti-heroes rising to the occasion by coming to trust each other.