The popularization of the superhero genre has empowered studios to explore avenues outside of the traditionalist Marvel and DC brands. Some craftsmen have elevated the genre’s formula (Upgrade and The Old Guard), while others lack the follow-through to live up to their potential (Brightburn). Netflix’s latest big-budget offering Project Power boasts some intriguing conceits, yet much of these ideals are lost in translation.
Project Power is set in a world where a mysterious drug called power hits the streets of New Orleans, which gifts its inhabitants a super-powered ability for a short period of time (some powers are superhero-esque, while others ravage a person’s body in vile ways). Robin (Dominique Fishback) is stuck at the bottom of the class structure, pushing power while working alongside police officer Frank (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). When Art (Jamie Foxx) a man hellbent on revenge stumbles into their lives, the three must team up to take down the drug’s creators.
It helps that Project Power’s uniquely-fitted leads are able to carry the narrative. Up-and-comer Dominique Fishback displays impressive ease as Robin, portraying the dramatic frames with weight while offering a sly charm to liven up the character’s archetype conception. It’s also a joy to watch the continuation of Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s comeback tour (he was great in 7500), with the actor’s effervescent charisma continuing to grab my interest (his jokey Clint Eastwood impression had me laughing every time). Jamie Foxx rounds out the trio with assured confidence and instant presence onscreen, as the three often left me wishing their talents were suited for a better movie.
Utilizing an intriguing high-concept premise, filmmakers Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman imbue a slick visual edge that amplifies the production. Reteaming with Nerve DOP Michael Simmonds, the team shoot with a sweaty intimacy that fits in tandem with the film’s cop procedural approach to the superhero genre. The freehand camera moves swiftly and with precision, dreaming up a plethora of inventive setpieces that bring some much-needed ingenuity to the table (an action scene shot from the perspective of someone trapped in a pod is particularly impressive). Joost and Schulman may not be marquee names yet, but their promising directors who remain on my radar, developing a distinct sensibility that often enhances familiar trappings.
While the duo presents a visceral voice on camera, their work still leaves room for refinement. Project Power is desperately lacking a sense of identity on screen, often fluctuating between the grandiose thrills of superhero ventures to the grounded grit of police dramas. I appreciate the notion of trying to marry these two genres together, it just doesn’t translate smoothly onscreen. Joost and Schulman’s lack a deft touch in the handling of the film’s dramatic frames, often drowning out the character’s turmoil with abrasive score choices and overly-stylistic framing.
Similar to the direction, Mattson’s Tomlin screenplay is equal parts promising and frustrating. Tomlin creates some absorbing zeitgeist conceits, attempting to ruminate on the drug crisis, the disenfranchisement of communities impacted by it, and the abuse of fragile power dynamics – especially by police. What could have been profoundly timely fails to register a strong impression, lacking the nuance or emotional sincerity to touch on grand societal issues. Tomlin also draws his characters in a generic, one-dimensional fashion, strapping them with heavy-handed dialogue that often clumsy overexplains its point (JGL’s character says “we’re not letting suits decide like the last time” in a goofily overt reference to Hurricane Katrina).
Project Power has the bones of an invigorating reinvention of the superhero genre, yet its delivery never lives up to its heroic aspirations.
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