Project Power (2020)
★★ / ★★★★
“Project Power” is “X-Men”-lite without the interesting mythology and biting social commentary. Written by Mattson Tomlin, it appears to be content in just being an action flick with some sci-fi leanings and a few corny jokes peppered along the way. While there is nothing with such an approach, there is a nagging problem: The elements it does offer seem to function at only half potential. What results is a watchable but entirely unmemorable project that by the end imaginative viewers are forced to consider possibilities had more creative, ambitious, and experienced filmmakers were at the helm. The premise is so fun, it can ignite a film franchise or television series.
The secret project involves a pill that grants superhuman powers for five minutes. In mere six weeks, this drug has completely overtaken New Orleans—so much so that the New Orleans Police Department (NOPD) have had much trouble taking down criminals who have access to it. The catch: the person who consumes the pill has no idea what type of power he or she will exhibit. And because the drug is unstable, some who take it will explode. This role of chance is a masterstroke and it is a shame the screenplay fails to capitalize on it.
At least the three central protagonists have personality. While Jamie Foxx and Joseph Gordon-Levitt turn up the charm to expected levels—the former having been the original test subject of the project who is now on a mission to rescue his daughter (Kyanna Simone Simpson) from the villainous Dr. Gardner and the latter an NOPD cop who chooses to consume the drug in order to even out the playing field when dealing with beefed up baddies—it is Dominique Fishback who shines as Robin, a drug dealer who aspires to become a rap artist. I enjoyed moments when the picture simply sits back and allows Robin to spit out killer rhymes. It’s clear that Robin has the talent for it and so we wonder how her future might be like should she take the opportunity to leave drug dealing behind, graduate high school, and focus at who and what’s important in her life.
One of the most disappointing aspects of the picture is its aversion to human drama. For instance, Robin’s mother suffers from diabetes and so money is always an issue because they have no health insurance. But what about the emotional, psychological, and physical toll of a family dealing with this chronic illness? Another example: We never get to see Frank (Gordon-Levitt) interact with his fellow cops in the force. We get one exchange between Frank and his captain (Courtney B. Vance), but the setup and twist are entirely expected. Meanwhile, Art (Foxx) is reduced to having flashbacks of his daughter being taken from him. Clearly, more attention is put into how to make special and visual effects look cool.
Having said that, I enjoyed the CGI for the most part. The more ostentatious ones, like when a man’s entire body is ablaze and everything he touches is reduced to cinders, are certainly eye-catching, but those that impressed me most are a bit more restrained. A standout includes Frank facing off with a man with elastic limbs and they are required to battle it out in a tight space. Due to the enemy’s bizarre (and amusing) ability in addition to having such a limited room to move around, we are that much more drawn into the action. I wished, however, that the leader of the project, Dr. Gardner (Amy Landecker), who works for private defense contractor Teleois, had been given more things to do outside of looking menacing and giving orders. Therein is a classic case of henchmen outshining their superior.
Directed by Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, “Project Power” delivers C+ entertainment when it is apparent the template is capable of delivering at higher levels. One angle worth exploring: Teleois targets residents of New Orleans, in which the black population is close to 60% according to the 2019 United States Census Bureau, as test subjects for the Power drug before it goes national. There are overwhelming evidence throughout history that people of color were more often used as guinea pigs since black and brown lives were considered to be more dispensable than whites lives (Tuskegee experiments, Guatemalan syphilis experiments, Project 4.1, among others). So why not acknowledge and shape a universe based upon this fact (or other well-documented, real-life issues or events) so the story commands real punch behind it? Why not strive for more?