Project Power keeps the maniac Neveldine/Taylor aesthetic alive and is another welcome Netflix foray into small-scale superhero entries.
There’s a new designer drug on the streets — a glowing pill called Power that when ingested gives the user actual superpowers. The catch: it only lasts for five minutes, the user has no idea what power they’ll get, and there’s a very real chance the pill-popper might explode. It’s a clever hook, one that co-directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman and screenwriter Mattson Tomlin only sort of scratch the surface of. There are a lot of ideas in Project Power that are given short shrift, but the filmmakers smartly look to mitigate this shallowness with a commitment to stylistic flare — it’s certainly not a great film, but it sort of works if you consider it a makeshift replacement for the now defunct X-Men franchise. Netflix seems to be stepping in to fill the mutant-size hole in the current superhero craze. As has been pointed out elsewhere, The Old Guard is essentially about a team full of Wolverines; Project Power, then, puts together its own motley crew of underdogs, including New Orleans cop Frank Shaver (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, trying on the worst accent since Natalie Portman in Vox Lux), a mystery man named Art (Jamie Foxx) who’s looking for the source of the pills, and Robin (Dominique Fishback), a hustler with a heart of gold who just wants to make enough money to cover her mom’s medical expenses.
Delving into the plot too much is fruitless — Project Power is a mostly predictable movie that ends up going exactly where you think it will. Frank is the type of cop who does whatever it takes to get the job done; Art’s mysterious past is vague until it’s suddenly not, and anyway the film never leaves much doubt about bad guy status; Robin is street-smart and tenacious. It takes forever to get Gordon-Levitt and Foxx together, but thankfully the film improves once they do. The weak screenplay is littered with conveniences — for instance, Frank and Art’s relationship morphs from adversarial to friendly in the blink of an eye — but what is worthwhile is Project Power’s interest in mining the fertile thematic terrain of power: who has it and who doesn’t, both literally and figuratively. Part of the appeal of X-Men, in all its various incarnations, is its foundational fantasy of empowering the disenfranchised. Writers and filmmakers have used mutants as analogs for awkward teenagers, outcasts, minorities, and LGBTQ communities, giving a voice to anyone who has been ostracized from the American melting pot. Project Power picks up that particular thread, but by setting the film in a New Orleans still reeling from Hurricane Katrina, is able to layer in a look at the lasting impact that shock-style disaster capitalism has had on the city (as well as a condemnation of the health care system). It turns out that the drug is part of a larger conspiracy, and it has been dumped on the populace as part of a large-scale experiment wherein poverty-stricken citizens and people of color are the ostensible guinea pigs, expendable humans that represent little more than an entry on a corporate expense ledger. The film even name drops Henrietta Lacks and the Tuskegee Airmen, creating a kind of parallel narrative about the racist history of American medical science. But let’s keep things in perspective: we’re not dealing with Frederick Wiseman here, but rather a big budget actioner with the chief aim to simply blow shit up. Still, it’s heartening that a minor entry in our collective popular culture affords these ideas even a brief time at the podium — it’s a small rupture, in the end, but that it exists at all is the point.
For their part, Joost and Schulman direct the hell out of this, almost single-handedly keeping the maniac Neveldine/Taylor aesthetic alive. Their camera is frenetic, following people around in extreme close-ups, ogling sleek surfaces, and slapping on wide-angle lenses that throw their images slightly out of whack. Tiny, portable Go-Pros let them capture impossible angles and gonzo POVs, and there’s a big shootout that the directors perversely choose to film from behind a thick glass enclosure. The varied, shifting nature of the film’s superpowers also gives them the opportunity to indulge in a variety of CGI trickery, like a slow motion shot of a bullet hitting Gordon-Levitt in the face at point blank range or a guy who turns into a raging fireball before eventually going nuclear. The grand finale is a bit of a letdown, but there’s still some fun action beats there, as henchmen are momentarily gifted super-strength while others start growing razor sharp protrusions from their bones. You could do worse is the point, and for all of Project Power’s obvious flaws, it’s still decidedly more successful than the last few X-Men flicks that 20th Century Fox dumped before getting swallowed whole by Disney. Netflix seems to be taking chances on weirder, small-scale superhero stories that the Disney-MCU machine is never going to touch; the spirit that represents and the artistic flexing it affords are wins worth celebrating.
You can currently stream Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman’s Project Power on Netflix.