To date, the last superhero movie to receive a wide theatrical release was Bloodshot, a dumb-as-hell Vin Diesel vehicle based on the lesser-known Valiant Comics title. As a devoted comic-book reader, I still struggle with whether I find it amusing or depressing that superhero saturation has long ago reached the point where studios scramble to kickstart franchises for also-also-rans like Bloodshot or Morbius.
On paper, Project Power seems refreshing in that it isn’t a desperate adaptation of a C-list Marvel or DC character but an original screenplay by Mattson Tomlin. Some of the most stylistically distinct superhero films have been made exclusively for the screen, from Sam Raimi’s Universal-Monsters-style freakshow Darkman (1990) to James Gunn’s poignant and profane Super (2010). Sadly, there’s little about Project Power that feels fresh; it’s a grim slog that would rather spend time in poorly lit shootout sequences than mining any thrills out of its premise.
Shot in 2018 but only now getting a Netflix release, Project Power boasts a concept that reads like X-Men by way of Limitless: A new designer drug called Power has flooded the streets of New Orleans. The high? Well, the user receives a random superpower for five minutes. No one knows what that Christmas light-looking pill will give them until they take it. If you’re lucky, you get something rad like bulletproof skin or the ability to shoot flames from your hands. Less-fortunate souls just explode into a pile of innards. The movie makes a pretty bold logical leap in assuming a drug with such a high body count would attract such a large swath of customers. (Yes, I’m aware people overdose every day, but this can literally make you explode.)
Robin (Dominique Fishback), a Power dealer, is a good kid trying to survive in a town overrun by poverty. A high school student from a broken home with dreams of being a rapper, she maintains a solid side hustle selling Power to a local detective named Frank (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, always nice to see around) — who uses the drug to even the odds against two-bit criminals who are now running amok with unstable new superpowers. The two get caught up in the schemes of a lone badass named Art (Jamie Foxx), a guy who needs to find the source who’s supplying the drug, and it doesn’t matter how many generic goons he has to fight through to find it.
Given that description, it should come as no surprise that Project Power is stupid to its very core. The characters are walking cliches, of course. Foxx is a Man With Nothing to Lose, and let’s just say that when the movie reveals the real reason for his violent quest, you’ve already guessed as much well before then. Gordon-Levitt is the Cop on the Edge whose reckless ways at one point, shockingly, force his captain to ask for his gun and badge. Fishback’s performance is charismatic enough to make her portrayal of Robin occasionally shake loose the stereotypes with which the screenplay burdens her. Her comic timing with Foxx in a couple scenes, as well as the dynamic presence she brings during her freestyle raps (which are peppered throughout the movie), shows an actress guaranteed to earn a more worthy role down the line.
Plenty of genre films have overcome weak characterization and predictable story beats in the past by embracing their absurdity and leaning into their infectious style. Project Power’s undoing lies in its inability to do either. Despite featuring a villain with a saggy, tattooed neck like a Komodo Dragon and a glued-on goatee, this movie refuses to have any fun. The tone is aggressively dour, wallowing in the miserable circumstances of its characters to monotonous effect. The father-daughter elements in Foxx and Fishback’s relationship can’t help but encourage unflattering comparisons to 2017’s Logan, which respected its characters enough to earn that somber mood.
Directing pair Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman (Catfish, Paranormal Activity 3) are clearly aiming to craft a postmodern superhero film in the vein of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy or Wolverine’s swan song. Still, its dim-witted attempts at world-building, not to mention the painfully lame people inhabiting it, smother any individual moments of promise (which mostly come courtesy of Fishback). Instead of playing around with the capability of giving characters any superpower you can imagine, we get a lot of rote action sequences of people shooting at one another until, every now and then, someone pops a dose of Power and starts running around like a methed-out Human Torch.
Along with last month’s The Old Guard, Netflix deserves a bit of credit for taking an increasingly adult approach to its superhero joints. Project Power places emphasis on a strong performance from a black female lead (and a relative unknown at that), attempts to inject some commentary regarding the cycle of crime and poverty, and isn’t afraid to show the impact of its violence at times. All of these are good things. But in the end they’re nothing more than glimpses of a potentially much-better movie — one that wasn’t ultimately squashed by pure hackery