Remember movie theaters? Those things were fun—even in the dead heat of summer, you could snag a $10 ticket for two hours of air conditioning, varying degrees of thrills, and the option to overspend on popcorn and M&Ms. Perhaps even better, this situation encouraged out-of-your-comfort-zone choice. Only so many different films can play on a theater’s limited number of screens at once, so instead of being paralyzed by endless selection screen scrolling, you and your cohort simply aimed for what sounded best and maybe enjoyed something you wouldn’t have tried otherwise.
Project Power, available this weekend on Netflix, stars Jamie Foxx, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and Dominique Fishback. It screams “summer action movie, available for a few weekends in July.” But in 2020, such things remain fantasies of the past. That’s a shame for many, many reasons, but one of the tinier downsides of the film industry’s current reality is that Project Power is a good time many people will simply never see, maybe never even know exists.
An archetype project
In a broad sense, Project Power tells a classic tale of those in power conducting experiments on the rest of us. A seedy scientific startup called Teleios has created a drug that gives humans superpowers (the drug’s plainly called Power). The drug sits firmly in the development stage, though. Users don’t know what power they’ll develop—the list of classics includes chameleon-like camouflage, super strength, regeneration abilities, etc.—but not all of ’em end up benefitting users.
Despite the imperfections, this company has evidently gotten a little impatient. Instead of going through the proper (and slow) channels of standard scientific approval, Teleios solicits drug dealers in New Orleans to distribute their product throughout town for a more informal trial. The goals are two-fold: see the drug’s shortcomings so Teleios can continue to improve it, and showcase its capabilities so Teleios can sign fat government contracts abroad.
Unleashing superhero pills in an unsuspecting city comes with some consequences, though. For “good” cop Frank (Gordon-Levitt), he notices the NOPD handles any incident involving Power quite differently, deferring immediately to men in black suits. (“We know what happened last time we were counting on guys in suits to save New Orleans,” he bluntly tells the chief.) For high schooler Robin (Fishback), she suddenly sees an easy way to make a buck as her mother deals with diabetes and a lack of health insurance. And for military vet Art (Foxx), well, his daughter has been missing and he has reason to believe she’s caught up in this whole mess.
Things start to snowball, however, when Teleios invites a South American buying group to town and Art arrives on the scene that same week. Both he and Frank want to get to the people behind Power, and the only person they know of with any connection happens to be Robin. But as the three of them start to cross paths and learn of their common pursuits, more and more pill-popping employees of Teleios seem to be following their tracks with intentions of cleaning up anything standing in the way of better drugs and more contracts.
The trailer for Netflix’s Project Power[/ars_trailer]
Power lies in executing the familiar
If all that sounds familiar, it kind of is. The world will get more “superpowers are complicated” stories this month (maybe) with The New Mutants currently scheduled on August 28 and Amazon’s The Boys returning soon after on September 4. And these days, ample “governments manipulating the public to sustain control” fantasies can be found in the dark corners of any social media platform. (Legitimate versions of that can be found in any newspaper with government beat reporters, of course: “In the real world power goes to where it always goes, to the people who already had it,” as Art puts it.)
But Project Power works—and would make for a fun sitting at a drive-in, on the couch, or in a theoretically risk-free theater—because of how competently it executes a known blueprint. That starts with the performances. It’s been awhile since Fox or Gordon-Levitt had a hit film, but maybe their best work has always subtly been in the action genre, from Django to Baby Driver to Looper to Dark Knight Rises. Each manages fight sequences and daring vehicle chases/escapes with ease (JGL even had a bike accident during filming, but you wouldn’t know it). Fishback may be the most consistently charming of the three leads, though. Anytime Robin showcases the growing ability behind her rapping dreams, for instance, it’s among the film’s most enjoyable moments. Even if it’s not totally relevant to the plot in the end, I appreciate a budding rapper with the range to reference Celine Dion one moment and Dwight Howard the next.
The film also has an ideal setting for our stuck at-home times, since it lightly immerses you in the unique community of New Orleans. As someone who spent a handful of years living in the city, I’m probably 20 percent more likely to enjoy a film that’s not only set there, but genuinely holds production in the Crescent City. (This is how CSI: New Orleans stays on the air, right? Also, #LoganIsUnderrated.) Well-traveled viewers will recognize notable spots in the Lower Ninth Ward or the most famous abandoned theme park in Hollywood among more locality layups like the street car, Blue Bikes, or background visages of the Superdome. Frank’s Steve Gleason jersey or Robin using Zion Williamson as her phone background simply represent the powdered sugar on top.
The biggest driver of Project Power’s success, though, happens off-screen. For a first time feature writer, Mattson Tomlin’s script is nicely paced, which is to say this film starts and stays brisk. Maybe things like Robin’s rapping scenes are superfluous, but they’re consistently welcomed and never overstay their welcome. That’s indicative of Tomlin’s work overall—there’s just not a ton of aimless scenery chewing stuff, long character monologues, or overwrought action sequences. Maybe some viewers will be annoyed with a few morals that feel pasted on (Art keeps telling Robin to nurture her power in order to combat those in power; Frank has a lot of “this is my city” moments battling various organizational corruption) or with some key moments of exposition, but the latter may be intended to help folks who may watch this like a more traditional Netflix movie, aka while they’re only half paying attention. You don’t have to squint too hard to see how Tomlin recently found himself thrust into screenwriting duties on The Batman.
Project Power is ultimately the type of movie you used to be able to reliably find each summer at the theater: an action film that flashes a little comedy, stars someone you want to spend almost two hours with, and has enough happening to keep audiences moving through its perhaps not super complex plot. (I didn’t look at my phone at all here, which says something about a Netflix film in 2020.)
Even pre-COVID-19 ravaging the movie business, studios and theaters became less likely to create and distribute films like this. As production budgets grew and heightened the need for a big box office return, sure fire ways to continue that high wire financial act become the norm: known franchises or IP, kids movies, vehicles designed specifically for an A-lister of the moment (which Foxx definitely once qualified, but not today—am I the only one whose family dragged them to see sexy Robin Hood during the 2018 holiday season?), or more auteur-y projects that boast either Oscar aspirations or filmmakers that excite the critical community. Other things struggled to get made and/or find their way to theaters.
And so, streaming has stepped up to fill the void, with Netflix particularly doing so in a big way. From The Discovery, What Happened To Monday?, and Mute to Triple Frontier, Extraction, and The Old Guard, Netflix has perhaps become the reliable spot for what used to be a summer staple at the cineplex.
Project Power falls into this lineage. It will neither win an Oscar, capture the Internet zeitgeist, nor take the critical community by storm. Netflix didn’t even have Project Power showcased in the top of the page banner when I logged in to watch it Friday morning. But these capable B-movies or popcorn flicks can be fun when well or even adequately done—Project Power certainly qualifies.
Listing image by SKIP BOLEN/NETFLIX © 2020