Disclaimer: There are potential spoilers in this review. You have been warned.
What is power? In Henry Joost’s and Ariel Schulman’s PROJECT POWER, written by Mattson Tomlin, it means many things. On the surface the thrilling action, stunning special effects, and story with great performances by its elite cast would be more than enough to pack us into theaters, taking its place as a worthy entry into the 2020 summer blockbuster list, along with recent films like The Old Guard and the soon-to-be-released Tenet. It provides the right amount of punch and heart to win you over. What it also does is explore how unpredictable power is in the wrong hands while showcasing the resiliency of New Orleans, a city once abandoned by those in power, right when they needed them most.
In the city called “The Big Easy,” almost nothing is. This is where we are introduced to Robin (Dominique Fishback). A teen forced to grow up too fast due to lack of resources, she’s out there on the streets selling “Power” to people. The power they want to acquire is in pill form. For the right price, you receive a pill, take it and, for five minutes, you can be a superhero. There’s no way to tell you how your body will respond to it. You may become invisible or be able to fly. You could also be completely unremarkable or, like many untested things, have a bad reaction and die. Is the risk worth the reward? For those who dare try it, overwhelmingly, yes.
The pill is dropped off to a series of dealers, who then dispatch it to their corner dealers to sell. Suddenly people start witnessing all sorts of superhuman feats and report it to the local radio station, which captures that unmistakable New Orleans sound. It’s a testing ground. Unleash something cooked up in a lab and experiment on the city that’s been through it all. Regardless of the potential damage done to the community, the world-changing power is dropped right into the laps of those without it. The only way to perfect the recipe is to let a few eggs crack. As long as the bigger goal is achieved, who cares about what happens to the city?
Frank (played by poignant Joseph Gordon-Levitt) does dearly. An officer thrust into a new world where the people he’s chasing have abilities beyond comprehension. He’s decided the only way he can maintain some sense of order is to become a user himself. He ends up burying it from Robin. Frank loves New Orleans and wants to protect it from the new threat, even if it means joining them in doing the wrong thing.
Frank, feeling helpless, is determined to stop New Orleans from burning to the ground for nothing more than the wealth of which, not one cent will benefit the city. Enter Art (depicted by Jamie Foxx who gives a gritty performance), a traveler, determined to find the source of the pills by any means necessary. Using the means to justify the ends, he is not here to play with anyone standing in his way of destroying the source of so much pain in his life. Doing terrible things for a greater good is a major theme in PROJECT POWER and, for Art, it is his way of life.
Art finds Robin, the dealer, and begins to form a partnership born out of fear. He sees something in her that she doesn’t see in herself. During their time together, he even encourages her to find her natural power, the thing she’s good at, and use that to make it instead of dealing pills. Art understands the position she’s in and the chips that are stacked against her. He opts for tough love, which is exactly what Robin needs.
During the investigation, Art and Frank meet and have to learn to trust each other if they want to get things right. Robin is the common denominator that brings them closer. The barely tolerable arrangement turns into genuine care as they go deeper and face more people who take “power pills” and try to kill them. The powers people have are rich and diverse. There is everything from invisibility to a man who, if not for being a part of the kill army, would be a world-class contortionist. The array of different things that they face is inventive and fresh. Whenever they have to fight someone new, you have no idea what’s they will become. PROJECT POWER is graphic, right in the wheelhouse of traditional summer action films. Every bit of it necessary to push the story along and demonstrate the odds that our main characters overcome.
The directing puts you right in the middle of the fight, without losing focus of what’s going on. Too many times directors turn to shaky cameras or slow down effects to try and make the fights more effective. The directing here is more organic. The movements are quick, but not fast. The powers are impactful. You see the full scope of the abilities that many different people in this world have. The quiet parts of the film have substance and aren’t full of filler hoping you don’t notice there’s no fighting going on. Robin, Art, and Frank have a clear motivation. New Orleans, a character all in itself, shines in every scene. Even the subtle things capture the city, such as the weather being nice in one moment and then pouring rain the next. Mixed with a score of music that would easily be playing up and down different sections of New Orleans, it’s a true portrayal of the spirit of the city.
They’ve escaped police assassination attempts and underground supermarkets. Infiltrated lavish, secret society clubs and came through healthy enough to see their mission through. All of it has led to a ship looking to abandon the city it set on fire. This time they must face armed guards, all equipped with those pills, and an understanding of their powers and how to use them. The build-up is tense as Robin, Frank, and Art each are in charge of completing a part of their impromptu plan. In the climax of the film, Art has to decide to use his powers. He’s alluded to them but we never see it as everyone, including himself, thinks its too dangerous. At the showdown, Art can either use his powers or risk being unable to stop the supply of these pills to the entire world.
Does power corrupt or are people naturally corrupt? If a pill like this existed, would anyone use it responsibly? Would enough people be willing to fight for what’s good or would everything change for the worse, while the rest of those without power, try to adjust to servitude to those with it? If you discovered you had powers, how would you use it? Getting lost in the fantasy of crazy things like flying, cloaking, or strength is easy. What about the power you have right now?
PROJECT POWER is a blockbuster movie with a ton of character. It takes a simple idea and gives you so much to think about while still commanding your complete attention. The fighting, acting, and story are top-notch and worthy of a watch. The examination of what power does to people, and the many ways to nurture it for good, knowing how easy it is to be corrupted, is a damn good reason to watch it again.
PROJECT POWER premieres Friday, August 14, 2020, on Netflix.