Whether it’s initially scribbled on a shitty cocktail napkin in a fog of bong smoke while occupying a disheveled couch or composed neatly on a souped-up MacBook atop a Feng Shui desk in a posh nook of some creative person’s living space, a potent idea can propel a writer’s bender to attempt a screenplay. Netflix’s Project Power has one of those high concepts where the mere thought of it gets you to hear late announcer Don LaFontaine in your head. Putting on his pitch voice, imagine a world where people can gain temporary superpowers from a mere pill. Picture the intriguing implications, suspense, and spectacle and your popcorn starts cooking already.
Now, at the peak of such anticipation, go back and remember the high concept movies you’ve seen that had very little beyond that one good idea. Feel a burn or two? Is Andrew Niccol, or worse M. Night Shyamalan, spinning and killing your brain cells again? Regrettably, kind of like erectile dysfunction, this kind of thing happens sometimes. Add Project Power to the list of damn good concepts that stop short of critical mass.
What is Project Power like mixing urban drug culture with edgy comic book overtones? Funny you should ask. Take it back to when even a pro like Don LaFontaine couldn’t keep a straight face pretending to sell male enhancement drugs on The Tonight Show. The listed side effects he exaggerates with an invasive giggle for such medication could easily match this actioner from the Nerve and Paranormal Activity 4 directing team of Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman. The pitfalls are the same.
In the Netflix flick, the Crescent City is beginning to percolate with an uptick of crime incidents coupled with fantastical tabloid-like reports of superhuman feats. The cause is the invasive use of a new street drug dubbed “Power” that an organized source (in the form of the slick black hats of 300’s Rodrigo Santoro and Transparent’s Amy Landecker) is starting introduce into the New Orleans market through low-level drug dealers like the twitchy Newt (Colson Baker, aka Machine Gun Kelly) and teenaged rap impresario Robin (the co-headlining and multi-talented Dominique Fishback). The pricy glowing capsule grants the consumer unbridled effects for an extended hit of five minutes.
You get what you get. Power’s reaction is different for every “I want to see what happens” user. One person could wield fire, become bulletproof, or have an animalistic bonus. The next could explode or melt into a puddle of deformity or fleshy goo. The only way to find out is to take the pill and see what happens, and that’s the crux of the movie’s buzz. Just like the pill, you get what you get with Project Power. Some school teacher out there (ok, it’s this one) will add a poetic rhyme after that line to say “you get what you get and you don’t throw a fit.” Well, so much for a warning label.
The long-arm of the law combating this rapidly growing mini-crisis is represented by Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s dedicated homer Frank Shaver. Robin is one of Frank’s undercover informants and his own supplier of Power that he uses to secretly get an edge on the job off the books from his overmatched captain (a grossly underused Courtney B. Vance). Clad in an ever-present Steve Gleason New Orleans Saints jersey under his necklace badge and a poorly-accented “not in my town” tough guy scowl, JGL plays this role, for worse more than better, as Mark Wahlberg Lite. The more Frank seeks the suppliers to level the playing field, the more he suspects larger clandestine governmental involvement.
The smoking gun enigma who knows the deeper implications of Power and the connected network controlling it is Jamie Foxx’s ex-Army Ranger Art. His own vendetta of investigations crosses paths with Newt, Robin, and soon Frank as his target is an urgently personal one, namely his missing daughter Tracy (Kyanna Simpson). Along the way, the three encounter the escalation of the drug’s pervasive use and the entrapment of its unchecked consequences.
In those collected moments of nonsensical chases against unmotivated heavies, there is some sizzle for the escapist thrills that have been lacking this summer movie season. There is one dynamite action scene of note where Michael Simmonds’ camera stays on the calamitous transformation of a side character in the foreground while the mayhem swirls behind them. Clever special effects from Ivan Moran and Yves De Bono paint manifested abilities over the stunts and fights coordinated by the team of Kevin Scott and Cory DeMeyers, all while Joseph Trapanese’s booming score sets the beatdown beats.
We get it. Superpowers are cool. We’d love some, but is it worth the risks just to see what happens for five minutes and a couple hundred bucks? Much like necessary exercise to get ripped and the hard work needed to get rich, there are no shortcuts. Nothing is free and drugs are too good to be true. Push the pills away. While you’re at it, kids, don’t sell them either.
Somewhere along the way, Art’s protective wing of wisdom extended to Robin tries to emphasize the greatness people have on the inside. Fishback is easily the core of the movie and Foxx, cashing paychecks, is a lifting presence of integrity. Everyone has talents that don’t need to be super and they need to be fostered, shared, and used for the good of one’s self and others. Aww! That’s a nice higher place, but a clumsy pillar for a movie still dealing with more limited wrongdoers than heroes.
The fading buzz of Project Power comes from screenwriter Mattson Tomlin. Fair credit can easily be given to the future The Batman co-writer for that big bright central concept that grabs originality and attention. Project Power operates without comic book sources, though we’re all going to point our fingers at the borrowed logic, inspirations, and tropes. The movie makes an effort to form its own superhero sky above a grounded setting of tall buildings easy to bound. Like the chemical addiction on screen, you have at best, five-minute spurts here and there of those leaps from the concept. You’re likely left asking where all of the power goes.