Project Power: Potential but no Punch

I couldn't shake the feeling that I'd seen this all before.

In Netflix’s new film Project Power, an experimental new drug called Power is hitting the streets of New Orleans. One dose gives the user a random superpower for five minutes, assuming it doesn’t kill you. A man called the Major (Jamie Foxx) is searching for his daughter, who’s been taken by the people responsible for the drug. He navigates the seedy drug underworld while aided by a teenage dealer (Dominique Fishback) and a NOPD officer who routinely amps himself up with the drug (Joseph Gordon-Levitt).

Does that premise sound intriguing? Does it hold a lot of potential? You bet. Does Project Power do anything to fully utilize that potential? Not really, no.

Project Power doesn’t totally seem to know exactly what kind of movie it’s trying to be. Sometimes it comes off as a slick action film with just enough logic to justify its premise. But then it shifts into a gritty, urban, topical drama. There are snappy one-liners, but they don’t land. There are character arcs that never really get off the ground. There are so many directions the premise could be taken, and the film hedges its bets by trying to do too many of them at once.

Bang bang, my baby shot me down.

Which isn’t to say that film is a Bad Movie or that it’s without merit. Directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman are highly capable, and the film looks and feel strictly professional. The cast is largely committed and gives thoroughly invested performances. The special effects are mostly well done, especially during the film’s climax, and the fight scenes are relatively well-executed if edited to death, MCU-style.

But things just don’t come together like they should, and it’s largely a fault of the film’s script. This is writer Mattson Tomlin’s first script, and it seems to do the bare minimum in terms of narrative and connectivity. It focuses squarely on the main characters, which is admirable in its own way, but Tomlin rarely gives us a full and meaningful context to their stories or situations. The existence of a drug like Power has ramifications that are never adequately explored, and the setting lacks any kind of particular flavor or style (New Orleans has never looked so drab).

At least those characters are by and large ones we don’t mind spending two hours with, even if they aren’t terribly deep or complex. Jamie Foxx’s The Major has few if any personality traits outside of his desires for revenge and for the return of his daughter. Foxx does what he can, though, letting his natural charisma fill in some (but not all) of the gaps. Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s cop Frank is a little more well-drawn, but not by all that much. He’s so dedicated to keep his city safe that he’s willing to risk his life by taking Power, but he never seems too conflicted about that. Again, Gordon-Levitt’s inherent likability helps smooth over the lack of shading in his character, and it’s clear that both he and Foxx are taking this job seriously.

The standout of the cast, however, is Dominique Fishback as the teenage Power dealer Robin. Robin is given a relatively generic backstory and motivation, but Fishback runs with it, and her performance gives the character a weight and depth that the script doesn’t. Instantly sympathetic and relatable, Robin is much like the film itself in that she is full of unrealized potential. Watching her evolve over the course of the film is highly gratifying, and Fishback makes this growth seem completely organic and real.

Robin, girl, you deserve more and better promo pics.

The characters have a distinct lack of compelling antagonists, however. The big bad is so flat and poorly-written that if their name was mentioned over the course of the film, I didn’t remember it until I looked up the cast list. Their lackeys are almost completely defined by the abilities they gain when they take a dose of Power (because of course all the bad guys take it). The only villain that makes even a hint of an impact is sub-boss Biggie, played by a nearly unrecognizable but still charming AF Rodrigo Santoro in a too-brief performance that the movie almost doesn’t deserve.

There seems to be a lot of Project Power that seems borrowed from other properties or only half-formed when put on screen. The opening scene comes off as a video game prologue to a forgotten PS3 title. The music sounds like a designer imposter version of Tomandandy’s industrial score for Resident Evil: Afterlife. A gun battle in an underground club seems like something out of Bright. Again, everything is executed quite competently, but it just lacks any sense of vitality or spark. I couldn’t shake the feeling that I’d seen this all before.

All of this might sound like Project Power isn’t worth your time, and that’s not entirely true. It’s not a bad film per se. In fact, it can be entertainingly ridiculous in just the right amount, and the chemistry between the leads (especially Gordon-Levitt and Fishback) is palpable. It’s just disappointing to see the potential for the premise and setting being wasted in real time before your eyes.

There is a good film hidden in here somewhere. Maybe the film should take a dose of its own pills and let it out for five minutes.

FBOTU Score: 5 out of 10 / C