In the year that is in it, it actually feels like a very long time ago that I took in Netflix’ Code 8, the Amell Cousins’ alternative take on the superhero genre. It sought to plant the fantastical elements that are part-and-parcel with that genre into a much more realistic setting, a quest that was admirable and, in the end, accomplished. I really enjoyed Code 8, and was surprised to see that Netflix are essentially betting on lightning hitting twice within a relatively short amount of time with their latest “original”.
This time things are a tad different. Yes, the generalities of the premise are quite similar, as we examine the impact of superpowers on the law and order of a realistic urban setting. But there are many differences too, not least Project Power’s star power, in the form of Jamie Foxx and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, which certainly makes it stand out a bit more then Code 8 did. There’s also the minority cast elsewhere, a better budget, and perhaps a premise that could conceivably claim to be slightly more interesting: instead of superpowers as commentary on discrimination, it’s superpowers as a commentary on the drug war. So, was Project Power another superhero tour de force for the streamer? Or is it a case of too much in too short a time?
On the streets of New Orleans a new drug, “Power”, grants the user five minutes of unpredictable abilities, ranging from bulletproof skin to invisibility, if it doesn’t just make you explode. Two separate men conduct their investigations into its mysterious pushers: The “Major” (Foxx), who has shady past of his own and is trying to track down a loved one, and LOPD cop Frank (Gordon-Levitt), seeking to keep the streets of his city safe. Both come into the circle of teenage dealer Robin (Dominique Fishback), and the three are soon digging into the heart of a superpowered conspiracy.
Does anyone remember the TV show The 4400? I was big into it for a while, but I hadn’t thought of it for years until I watched Project Power. The final season of The 4400 revolved around a drug that had a 50/50 chance of granting the user superpowers or killing them, and it was an interesting premise: if the risk was worth the potential reward, the dangers of reckless people getting access to such powers, the seeming necessity of the forces of law and order also getting their hands on such abilities, etc, etc. Project Power, that I am in no way saying is stealing its ideas from a 15 year old TV show, takes that same premise and tries to turn it more into an action movie, albeit one that has pretensions of also having a brain.
But it is first and foremost an action movie. It obviously doesn’t have the budget to compete with the likes of DC and the MCU – one wonders just how much was spent on securing the two big names that headline the production – but it doesn’t really need big bucks for most of what it tries to create. The superpowers are relatively straightforward – Gordon-Levitt’s Frank has armour for skin, other people gain super-strength, or can self-immolate etc – and the superpower battles are more hand-to-hand and kinetic than anything you might experience in your standard blockbuster of the genre. Project Power works as an action movie by presenting foot-chases, brawls, shoot-em-ups and melee fights, and adding a little bit of otherworldly spice on top of them with the premise: a foot-chase where the guy being chased has chameleon skin, a brawl where one guy can keep healing himself from every strike, a shoot-em-up where one victim turns into a giant monster, a melee fight where one guy uses his own bones as razor-sharp weapons (OK, I’ll grant that last one takes more than is healthy from X-Men). Power is a drug rooted in the unique abilities of the animal world, from chameleon’s to pistol shrimps, and that is neat enough.
This keeps Project Power from losing your attention, and it does pretty well with its beating heart. That would appear, to me anyway, to be a commentary on the drug war in America, and how it’s idiosyncrasies and moral grey areas make a mockery of treating it as purely a battle of moral opposites. People at the low end of the scale clamor for Power, even if it only gives them five minutes at the top (one guy, played by Machine Gun Kelly, suffers the consequences of fire-powers, in a remarkable prosthetic job). Robin, suitably named, sells “Power” out of a lack of prospects and a desire to help her ailing mother with her medical problems. She’s taken advantage of by both Frank, who feels he needs Power to do his job, and by the Major, who needs her as an asset to further his own plots of revenge.
In essence, she becomes a representation of those POC on the lower end of the scale, used and abused by both law enforcement and criminals. Robin has her own desires, goals and ambitions, that are too often flung to the side by other people, to the extent that she is reduced to acting out those desires purely in her head (a sequence where she confronts a bullying teacher through rap is fairly heartbreaking). That both Frank and the Major come to view Robin in a new light by the end of the story is important, especially the Major, whose quest introduces a surrogate father/daughter element to proceedings also. It’s in there relationship that the film has its best script moments, like an impromptu demonstration of Robin’s rap prowess, the Major’s lessons on how people like her can drag themselves out of the gutter, and a very clever loop-around, where a school-lesson about fetal alcoholism is later turned into an explanatory tool for a significant plot point. The script is from Mattson Tomlin, a name to remember: he’s writing the R-Patz-helmed The Batman.
There are nods here-and-there to numerous themes and allegories, from government mistreatment of New Orleans generally, with not-so-subtle allusions to Hurricane Katrina, to corrupt policing, to PTSD in veterans. Where Project Power comes unstuck might be in how these kinds of things aren’t at the very core of the story, with the superpowers problem around them. Rather it is the reverse: this is primarily a superpowers action movie, that occasionally strays into covering larger topics. I do not wish to make out that the film is shallow or brainless, but where Code 8 did a great job of making it’s superpowered shenanigans a part of the larger world-building that buttressed the story and allegory being expanded upon, Project Power is more like a decent film about people struggling in the drug trade, and hey, some of them can freeze things with their breath as well, so that’s cool.
It helps that the production is well-acted. Fishback is the real stand-out, bringing a youthful ennui to Robin, trapped between so many different forces, and with no clear way out. It’s especially impressive considering she has to be the glue between the two other main cast members, who are relative giants in their field (and she does develop a great rapport with Foxx). This is a great feature advertisement for her at such a young age, so she is very much one to look out for in future outside of her established TV work. Both Foxx and Gordon-Levitt, especially the latter, are more subdued (JGL channels his Dark Knight Rises and Premium Rush characters into one bland amalgam really, though his charm is undeniable).
There is a sense that this is a house show for them, not a film to bring their absolute A game, but even then they are good enough at what they do that they are still able to sell you on the vicious, yet sometimes caring Major, or the snarky, overly-confident Frank. The rest of the supporting cast gets some props for its minority nature, but is limited enough. Rodrigo Santoro pops up as one of Power’s main pushers, but isn’t given the time to really steal the show like you know he can, and the film’s main villain is pretty much a personality-less scientist played by the forgettable Amy Landecker. That’s a way that Project Power does take its cues for the MCU, in that it focuses so much on its protagonist characters that the antagonists are left trailing in their wake.
The film does look very impressive, given its budgetary restrictions (relative to the genre). You can tell that directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman – best known for the somewhat controversial documentary Catfish, so this film is a bit out of left field – have an eye for action, with a number of really-well put together scenes that capture the necessary hand-to-hand, with only one, a fight between the Major and a fire-engulfed Machine Gun Kelly in a crumbling slum block, overly-reliant on CGI. The directors really only gets truly experimental for one sequence, where our view of a fairly vicious fight is through the glass of an isolation booth where a Powered up woman is slowly dying in a fairly horrific manner: a strange dichotomy that doesn’t quite work, but was so unique that I have to give it some props for the attempt. Those kind of dips into horror are probably representative of Joost and Schulman’s pedigree in the low-budget horror genre, the two being notable for later entries in the Paranormal Activity franchise.
New Orleans looks pretty good on film, with the focus being very much on some of its not-so-nice parts – the local tourism board will not be recommending Project Power I think – but there is always a sense of life, vibrancy and that crucial “lived-in” feeling, that I think something like Code 8 struggled with. But Netflix is getting there, obviously increasingly willing to pony up for stuff that would traditionally have been seen only on the big-screen.
Project Power is unlikely to really be remembered for too long I feel. The superhero genre on the big-screen was badly over-saturated before COVID gave us all a break, it was over-saturated on regular TV, and there is now even a sense that streaming options are moving towards the breaking point with films and series about ordinary people getting extraordinary powers. Project Power does contribute something to the genre, but for me it doesn’t do quite enough to stand out from the pack. It has its setting, its largely POC cast, its nods to some weighty socio-political themes. But it also has some struggles with its structure, with what it really wants to be, and with what it wants to concentrate on, especially in terms of its action film bonafides. The ending leaves things open for a continuation, but I think this is something that would be better off as a one-and-done: Project Power is a perfectly diverting two hour experience, and for that I do recommend it, but it really should be trying harder to re-invent the wheel.
(All images are copyright of Netflix).