Jamie Foxx is Art in Netflix's Project Power.

Project Power

Dept. of Deconstructed Populisms


Watching Project Power had me thinking about Passengers. (You remember that completely tiresome sci-fi effort with Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence? Probably not.) And for two reasons really. 1) Both movies were from scripts that were featured on The Black List, that annual survey of the “most-liked” screenplays not yet produced. 2) Like Passengers, this is also a movie that buckles under the weight of its own ambition, the end result being two or three shining moments that end up being overshadowed by overwhelming mediocrity.

I can pretty much picture the circumstances in which this script was conceptualised. Project Power (then called Power), which appeared on The Black List in 2017, was likely written a year or so before that. By 2016, the superhero movie had stumbled upon a certain respectability. If not by virtue of artistic merit, then at least by way of its box office performance. These were massive productions with global appeal, and every major studio with a franchise had made plans for dozens more movies with release dates stretching well into the 2020s.

And so, the time was right for some kind of indie reimagining of the comic book movie. Something small and gritty. Something which ran in contrast to the massive explosions of light and colour that had become the norm at our local cineplexes. Enter Mattson Tomlin (who has since gone on to co-write The Batman) and his brilliant concept. Taking the idea of having superpowers, deconstructing it, and bringing it down to the streets. Superimposing it onto a story about drugs and capitalism, and making it relatable by having it revolve around one man’s relentless hunt for his daughter. It is an idea that seems to strip the geekery from the genre in an attempt to make it more mainstream.

Jamie Foxx is Art in Project Power.

It’s clever, it’s catchy, and it should have worked. And maybe it would have in 2017. The problem with releasing a movie like Project Power in 2020 is that it’s no longer “refreshing.” There is so much superhero content out there that simply shoehorning these elements into a movie, without any worldbuilding whatsoever, feels like a shameless cash grab.

Make no mistake, Project Power is a movie will trick you into believing that it is something far deeper and more meaningful than it actually is. This is mostly due to its four leads. Jamie Foxx, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Dominique Fishback, and Rodrigo Santoro are, for better or for worse, completely committed to these parts. Despite having to spout lines that are plagued with trite one-liners and non-sequiturs, all four of them deliver impeccable performances. They seem incredibly invested despite being in drastically different movies.

Dominique Fishback is in a film about a young black girl, with a penchant for rap, who is trapped by circumstance and struggling to find her voice. Joseph Gordon Levitt is in a gritty New Orleans noir about a lone cop caught up in a corrupt system. Rodrigo Santoro is the hammy bad guy in a Louis Leterrier movie. And Jamie Foxx is in Taken 4

Joseph Gordon-Levitt stars in Project Power.

The problem with Project Power is that it tries to be all of those things. The movie, which is rooted in a clever “what if?” – what would you do if you could take a drug that would give you superpowers for five minutes? – squanders its high concept by trying to be everything else. Directors Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost seem almost embarrassed to be making a movie about superpowers. So much so that they spend the movie trying to divert your attention away from it.

They spend the better part of 111 minutes trying to tell you that this isn’t really a superhero movie. In fact, they lean so hard into the character drama that they often forget the core idea that got them there in the first place. And then, when they suddenly remember what Project Power is supposed to be, we get some throwaway line that serves no purpose other than to move the plot along. I’m not saying that you can’t have social commentary and grounded character drama within a genre piece (see: Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Watchmen, etc.), I’m saying that to do so well requires commitment to the concept (see: Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Watchmen, etc.).

Machine Gun Kelly stars as Newt in Project Power.

Throw in some painfully average action, a series of story setups (police corruption, a broken healthcare system, evil government entities, the drug trade) that barely get addressed, let alone resolved, and what you have is a movie that doesn’t really challenge your expectations but plod its way to a predictable finish. The third act is, well, the third act to this kind of movie. There’s a big showdown on a boat. The good guys win exactly how you think they will. Happily ever after. The epilogue tries to tie up some loose ends, but ends up feeling like more of an afterthought. (It says something that they did the whole drugs as a cult thing better in Robocop 2. And the drugs as nootropics thing better in Limitless.)

There is an emptiness to Project Power. In the way it navigates comic book culture. In the way it tries to speak about race. There is a hollowness whenever the movie brings up “the system” and its oppressive nature. (Throwing in a line about Henrietta Lacks doesn’t add any weight to the movie, it just comes off as obnoxious.) So much so that you feel very little for these characters or their manufactured plights.

Dominique Fishback is Robin in Netflix's Project Power.

Now, about those two or three shining moments. There are many problems with Project Power and none of them are Dominique Fishback. Everything she does in this move feels iconic. She brings so much raw humanity to her role that you can’t help yearn for what could have been had this movie been truly hers and hers alone.

There was absolutely no need for a rap battle dream sequence in this movie, but watching her brilliant performance made up for how out of place and out of step it was with everything else here.

Rodrigo Santoro is Biggie in Project Power.

Project Power isn’t a terrible movie. (This isn’t The Last Days of American Crime.) It is just so aggressively middling that it feels like a wasted opportunity. It is, much like the drug it peddles, only ever good for about five minutes at a time.

Project Power
111 minutes
Directors: Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost
Writer: Mattson Tomlin
Cast: Jamie Foxx, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Dominique Fishback, Rodrigo Santoro, Colson Baker, Allen Maldonado, Amy Landecker, and Courtney B. Vance

Project Power premieres on Netflix on August 14, 2020. Don’t forget to check out our interview with the cast.

Uma has been reviewing things for most of his life: movies, television shows, books, video games, his mum's cooking, Bahir's fashion sense. He is a firm believer that the answer to most questions can be found within the cinematic canon. In fact, most of what he knows about life he learned from Ace Ventura: Pet Detective. He still hasn't forgiven Christopher Nolan for the travesties that are Interstellar and The Dark Knight Rises.

Jamie Foxx and Dominique Fishback star in Project Power.
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