Review: Netflix’s Project Power Puts a Pretty Good Idea to Waste

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One pill makes you fire, and one pill makes you tall. And the one that Rodrigo Santoro gives you . . . Well, it might make you explode. Such is the risk incurred by the users of a new synthetic drug simply called Power, in the just-as-simply named new Netflix action film Projet Power (available to stream on August 14). A dangerous serum, ingested in capsule form, has swept onto the streets of New Orleans, giving its users abilities—combustion, invisibility, super strength—that most of them use to commit crimes. But what is this drug, exactly, and who created it? That is, I suppose, the mystery of the film, directed by Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost and written—not based on anything!—by Mattson Tomlin.

It is refreshing, at least, to see a movie that is its own idea, even if many of its tropes are borrowed from the glut of superhero movies that has clogged Hollywood’s main artery for over a decade now. Schulman and Joost—who, among other things, directed the similarly hued, silly but stylish social-media thriller Nerve—work to distinguish the film even further. Project Power has a nicely saturated, jittery visual language, an aesthetic that operates in concert with Tomlin’s surprisingly discursive script, giving the film an actual grain of place-and-time texture. Project Power often has a pleasing specificity to it, even when it’s thrashing around in violent special-effects hullabaloo.

The filmmakers also had the good sense to cast Dominique Fishback in what is essentially the lead role. Fishback, whom a few fans might know from the under-watched HBO series The Deuce, plays a teenager who’s found herself dealing Power to make ends meet; her mother is a diabetic and needs medicine, one of a few ways that Tomlin’s script does some not unwelcome gestures toward various topical socio-political ills. Fishback is a magnetic presence, funny and soulful and alert. Should Project Power become the next quarantine hit for Netflix, I hope it will propel Fishback along in her career, perhaps toward material that is better able to deliver on a solid setup.

Which is, sadly, the ultimate problem of Project Power. What begins interestingly enough gradually devolves into a confusing muddle. The film forsakes a keen emotional tenor for melodrama and tangles its plot into a senseless knot. By the end of Project Power, I had less of an understanding of the project in question—its aims, its origins—than I did at the beginning. Which is to say nothing of the methodology. What kind of drug trial is this, that just willy-nilly strews a outrageously dangerous pharmaceutical throughout a city and lets its users run rampant and, for the most part, uncontrolled? (There is a slight allegory here for the reckless and disastrous proliferation of OxyContin and other prescribed opioids, which isn’t lost on me—but that allusion needs a lot more teasing out to actually stick.)

But, hey, what does sense matter when there are some genuinely cool super-power effects—a fiery fight in a dingy apartment complex is the highlight—and a big movie star flashing his wattage at the audience? That star is Jamie Foxx, playing a man on the hunt for Power’s source out of deep personal motivation. It’s meant to be a question, for a while, whether he’s good or not, but it’s clear pretty much immediately that Foxx has not been tapped to play a murderous, drug-crazed villain. For a brief stretch, though, there is a thrilling charge to his vigilante anti-heroism, a tingle of menace that Foxx—such a persuasive performer—carries smartly.

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