With movie theaters still trying to find a way to safely open and most blockbusters getting shuffled to 2021——barring a new mutant or two—Netflix has established itself as this summer’s spot for A-lister-led action. This is absolutely a monkey’s paw scenario. Even stuck in quarantine, we’re still getting movies where Chris Hemsworth dismantles a child gang, Charlize Theron performs several battle axe murders, and Jamie Fox takes superpower pills. That’s great! But unfortunately, these Netflix movies are also…Netflix movies, meaning they’ll all be the same algorithm-approved kind of slick-looking, faux-philosophizing, and just close enough to the brink of interesting to hold your attention for exactly two hours. Such is the case with Project Power, directed by Paranormal Activity 3 duo Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost, an entertaining and occasionally very cool-lookin’ super-powers story that will evaporate from your brain almost immediately. It’s fine. The world needs perfectly fine action movies, and Netflix is happy to provide. The brand is “I’m not mad I watched that”, and in that sense Project Power is another solid dinger to left field disguised as a home run.
Project Power is set in a New Orleans besieged by a new drug that gives the user superpowers. The catch: You don’t know what power you’ll get, and it only lasts for five minutes. Some people become the Incredible Hulk for a solid 300 seconds, others just immediately explode. Foxx plays Art, a former soldier tracking his kidnapped daughter, who is being held by the same powers-that-be manufacturing the drug. Art enlists the help of Robin (Dominique Fishback), a promising young rapper with ties to the drug trade, and Frank (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a cop with no qualms about using the drug in his quest to get it off the streets. Frank wears a Saints jersey throughout the entirety of Project Power, which is a choice.
Jamie Foxx continues to be an elevation expert, boosting anything he’s in with an ability to add both levity and depth at a moment’s notice. Art’s search for his daughter is the emotional throughline of Project Power, letting the Oscar-winner play both sides of a desperate man; frightening in his willingness to do anything, vulnerable because he’s reached that point out of love. His best beats are across from Fishback, an extremely promising young actress in need of a better breakout who still manages to inject a ton of energy into this role. There’s a scene that sees Art getting Robin to open up about her rapping skills that’s both incredibly cheesy and the most human moment of the movie. The only lead wasted is Gordon-Levitt, who is basically hitting exactly the same notes he did in The Dark Knight Rises, a Good Cop protecting This City™.
On a technical level, Project Power is at its best when it uses its bananagrams premise as the springboard for a unique set-piece. Schulman and Joost display a few flashes of gonzo creativity here, suggesting a much wilder version of Project Power than the finished product. A highlight sees a woman in a containment tank being consumed by out-of-control ice powers while Foxx takes out the guards around her; the camera stays on the woman as the action occasionally flashes and bumps against the ground behind her. Another late fight scene features a guard taking the drug and turning his limbs into bendy rubber. It’s one of the only truly impressive practical moments of the film, the stunt performer twisting himself into a shoulder-popping pretzel to beat Frank’s ass.
But again—and I feel like a broken record, not just here but anywhere I discuss Netflix Originals—Project Power feels like an interesting base with all its edges beaten into the most broadly digestible shape possible. The script, from Mattson Tomlin, is clearly this close to being about the United States’ “War on Drugs” and the way it unfairly targets Black communities. But the movie can’t bring itself to actually touch the topic—as if it’s only interesting in it in theory—and largely hamstrings the entire idea by devoting so much time to a Good White Cop.
I’m also fascinated by the ways Netflix originals insist on dating themselves in the least-cool ways possible. During the aforementioned scene featuring a woman gaining ice powers, a distractingly obvious ADR’d in character says: “Just like Frozen.” I need a complete oral history of how “just like Frozen” ended up in the film Project Power. It’s just a symptom of the sickness that is storytelling by algorithm, a feeling that even the coolest Netflix action movie imaginable has to pass a level where someone Googles “what do the youths enjoy?”
In the end, Project Power is just like its story-driving drug without any of the addiction. It’s a genuinely entertaining burst of energy and ass-kicking, but it’s fleeting. The movie equivalent of being given the ability to fly for five minutes.
Project Power debuts on Netflix on Friday, August 14.