Review: As Netflix superhuman action-thrillers go, ‘Project Power’ is no ‘Old Guard’
Hey, have you heard of this new stuff? It’s the hottest thing to hit the market in ages, or at least since last week. It could be a total thrill; it could also be terrible, maybe even unbearable. You have no way of knowing how you’ll react, really. You just have to take a risk and give it a try.
This more or less sums up the premise of “Project Power,” a new and vaguely superhero-ish action-thriller set in New Orleans, where drug dealers are pushing an unusually volatile new product called Power. Curiously, though, it also describes the experience of learning that Netflix, supplier of choice for so many couch-bound streamaholics, has coughed up yet another piece of so-called original content. Is it good or bad, or at least worth sampling? Will you become hopelessly addicted, or recoil and explode into a million fiery shards? The answer, at least with regard to “Project Power,” is likely to fall somewhere in between.
Slickly directed by Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman from a script by Mattson Tomlin, the movie is too fast and flashy to qualify as boring but also too generic to draw blood, the assorted guts and viscera that occasionally splatter the frame notwithstanding. It recycles a few shopworn ideas about superpowers and human mortality from comic-book properties like “X-Men,” then puts fine actors like Jamie Foxx and Joseph Gordon-Levitt through the busy paces of a plot that runs nearly two hours without arriving anywhere particularly notable or novel.
Gordon-Levitt is Frank, a wily cop trying to get to the bottom of the Power supply chain. Foxx plays Art, a man with fast fists, a grim air of mystery and a traumatic personal narrative that leaks out in sad little dribbles of flashback. These two characters are connected — to their benefit as well as the movie’s — by a plucky teenager named Robin (Dominique Fishback), a gifted aspiring rapper moonlighting as a dealer. She thus feeds their dangerous fascination with Power and will prove crucial to unraveling the tricky medical conspiracy behind its heavy circulation on the streets of New Orleans.
Power is not your typical drug. It comes in capsule form and fittingly resembles a miniature light bulb, complete with glowing filament. When you ingest it, it temporarily restructures your DNA and grants you five precious minutes of superhuman ability. Those abilities are rooted in animal characteristics, and the possibilities are as varied and unpredictable as the Chinese zodiac: Will you regenerate severed limbs like a lizard, or camouflage yourself like an octopus? Or will you have the bad luck to overdose and combust on the spot?
The visual-effects artists have clearly had fun answering some of those questions in as grotesque and eye-popping a fashion as possible. There are sharp, bony protuberances and frozen limbs, some of them wielded by regulation baddies (including a supplier played by Rodrigo Santoro). It’s fun to watch Foxx’s Art chase a violently self-immolating suspect through a derelict apartment and to see Gordon-Levitt’s Frank pop a bit of Power himself and tackle a thug like a linebacker on crack — an image hilariously reinforced by Frank spending most of the movie in a Saints jersey.
The nod to New Orleans sports and culture feels, as with so much else in “Project Power,” like a grab for specificity within a context that couldn’t be more derivative. Not that derivative is an entirely or even inherently bad thing. “The Old Guard,” a superior Netflix entertainment that coincidentally shares some narrative DNA with this one, was a welcome recent reminder that even well-worn material can be invested with fresh reserves of soul and emotion.
Joost and Schulman, best known for expanding the internet lexicon with their ickily unnerving documentary “Catfish,” have also directed two “Paranormal Activity” sequels and are thus no strangers to deftly reworking thriller conventions on a shoestring. With its stabby set-pieces and body-horror CGI, “Project Power” finds the filmmakers working on a visibly larger budget and with an ever more showily unfettered sense of camera movement (the swooping, soaring cinematography is by Michael Simmonds).
Its most memorable effects, though, are not technological in nature. They are the wary side-eye glances and unexpected smiles that cross Fishback’s face as she banters with Foxx and Gordon-Levitt and also the streams of hip-hop poetry — carefully scripted but thrillingly delivered — that come pouring out during a few welcome stretches of down time. You may have seen this remarkable young actor on “The Deuce” or in the terrific independent drama “Night Comes On,” in which she played another teenager of ambiguous motive and effortlessly deep feeling. She’s this movie’s most reliable power and the only thing you’ll remember about it five minutes later.
Rating: R, for violence, bloody images, drug content and some language
Running time: 1 hour, 33 minutes
Playing: Available Aug. 14 on Netflix
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