Project Power (United States, 2020)

August 18, 2020
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Project Power Poster

Underwritten yet nevertheless enjoyable on a visceral level, Project Power is the latest Netflix film to use a familiar template: start with an intriguing premise, sign a bankable star (or two), employ an exotic (or at least non-standard) location (in this case, New Orleans), and let the action ignite. The movie contains its share of strong moments, many of which are elevated as a result of the performances by Jamie Foxx and Dominique Fishback, but the story as a whole feels incomplete, almost as if the filmmakers had positioned this as a six-part miniseries but, when granted only two hours, found it difficult to condense their tale.

With superhero movies being all the rage (and in danger of becoming an overexposed genre), it’s no surprise that many action/thrillers seeking to appeal to a younger demographic find a way to incorporate comic book elements into the narrative fabric. At its heart, Project Power is an old-school cop movie. One character is a maverick detective attempting to bring down a drug lord. Another is a father seeking to find and free his daughter, who has been kidnapped by the drug runners. And the third is a young girl who deals because she has no other means to support a sick mother. The “secret sauce” is that the drug isn’t cocaine, heroin, or some new narcotic. Instead, it’s a technologically advanced capsule that, once swallowed, allows a person’s inner superhero power to manifest for five minutes. The catch: you don’t know what your power is until you try it and, although some are cool (control of fire or frost, super-speed, Hulk-like strength, bulletproof skin), others can be fatal.

Jamie Foxx is Art, a desperate ex-military operative whose daughter has been kidnapped by the tech drug cartel because she has shown the ability to access her powers permanently, rather than for only five minute intervals. They want her for medical experimentation and take her when she won’t come willingly. Art employs a scorched earth policy in search of her so the cartel starts the rumor that he’s the one behind the threat. To that end, a New Orleans PD Captain (Courtney B. Vance) sends one of his most tenacious officers, Frank (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), undercover to find and (if possible) apprehend Art. Caught between the two men is Robin (Dominique Fishback), a teenager with a gift for rap (but not for her high school subjects) who deals the drug to make ends meet. She is Frank’s supplier and becomes Art’s target when he wants an “in” to the distribution chain.

Project Power could be one of three movies. It could be an offbeat coming-of-age story about Robin – that would most likely be the most interesting route. It could be a traditional cops-and-bad guys film focused on Frank. Or it could be a Payback-sort of narrative about the vigilante father killing his way up the food chain to find his daughter and the people responsible for taking her from him. One problem with Project Power is that it tries to be all three and, as a result, doesn’t work well as any. There’s too much going on and not enough time is spent developing any of the characters.

Foxx is fully committed, not treating this like the lesser popcorn flick that it is and therefore lending an element of gravitas to his scenes. His presentation of Art when he snatches Robin off the street and throws her in his trunk is unsettling. Desperation oozes from his pores and we sense that, if pushed, he might kill the girl. For her part, Dominique Fishback shows poise and energy playing a thinly-written role. (Distilled to its essence, she’s a sidekick.) She can rap with the best of them, although this is more of a personality quirk than a defining characteristic. Joseph Gordon-Levitt seems less invested than Foxx; he was more convincing in his other recent direct-to-streaming video entry, 7500. There is no real villain, although I suppose Rodrigo Santoro could serve that function in a pinch even though his total screen time is under 10 minutes.

Project Power falls into the new category of impressively mounted productions designed primarily for home viewing. As such, it doesn’t have the same requirements as a theatrically released film with a similar pedigree. People will watch movies like this if they have a good hook and can hold their attention, both of which are true in Project Power’s case. Things that are missing – like a strong, coherent story and well-developed characters – aren’t deal-breakers when there’s no trip to a theater or ticket price involved. This movie is passable popcorn entertainment – a two-hour distraction in the age of COVID-19 that won’t stand the test of time but was never intended to.

Project Power (United States, 2020)

Run Time: 1:53
U.S. Release Date: 2020-08-14
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity, Drugs)
Genre: Action/Thriller
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.00:1