Review: ‘Project Power’ flips superhero genre into action-packed drug allegory

This image released by Netflix shows Jamie Foxx, left, and Dominique Fishback in a scene from “Project Power.” The film, streaming Friday, imagines a world where a pill can give temporary superpowers. (Skip Bolen/Netflix via AP)
WTOP's Jason Fraley reviews 'Project Power'

Hollywood has become addicted to the superhero genre over the past 25 years.

So, you might be skeptical that a new Netflix original could break any new ground.

And yet, “Project Power” does just that with a unique premise that flips the genre. While most movies give a select few mutants supernatural abilities, this film suggests that we all have a supernatural ability just waiting to be unlocked — if we take a special pill. It could be good, it could be bad, or it could make you blow up on the spot.

Set on the streets of New Orleans, the story follows teenage drug dealer Robin (Dominique Fishback), who zones out in class by day and pushes the pill by night. Soon, she teams with local cop Frank (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and military vet Art (Jamie Foxx) to infiltrate and shut down the underworld group who created the pill.

You might recognize Fishback from “The Deuce” (2017) and “The Hate U Give” (2018). In “Project Power,” it’s hard to sympathize with her drug dealer until we learn her motives: her mom has diabetes and can’t afford health insurance. She also has a passion for rapping, which would feel cliche except that her freestyle rhymes flow.

She is urged to stay in school by Foxx, who is similarly misunderstood by the police. He may walk and talk like Denzel in “Training Day” (2001), navigating an underworld of criminal figures like Newt (Machine Gun Kelly) and Biggie (Rodrigo Santoro), but his character is given a clear mission to find his daughter, who he lost in flashbacks.

The only main character that isn’t given much of a backstory is Frank, other than trying to impress his superior Captain Crane (Courtney B. Vance). Wearing a Saints jersey and pedaling like “Premium Rush” (2012), the baby-faced Gordon-Levitt is now the seasoned cop, reminding us that “Angels in the Outfield” was somehow 26 years ago.

Interweaving this trio of characters is screenwriter Mattson Tomlin, who will co-write “The Batman” (2021). His larger goal is an allegory for the crack epidemic or opioid crisis, making the “rules of magic” clear for the pill: (1) we all have a hidden power, (2) we don’t know what it is, and (3) it only lasts five minutes, so set your stopwatch.

Beyond that, Tomlin taps into evolutionary themes that tie the powers to animal feats of nature like amphibians turning broken bones into weapons or reptiles controlling their own body temperatures. The pills simply help humans access the next phase of evolution, so it’s no coincidence that they’re transported on a ship called Genesis.

Helming it all are co-directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, who debuted with the Sundance feature documentary “Catfish” (2010) and the South By Southwest short doc “A Brief History of John Baldessari” (2012) before their horror flick “Paranormal Activity 3” (2011) and their upcoming video game adaptation of Capcom’s “Mega Man.”

In “Project Power,” they deliver a more tasteful alternative to the disappointingly crude Netflix crime comedy “Coffee & Kareem” (2020), which was too raunchy for its own good. “Project Power” is technically Rated R, but it feels closer to PG-13. Parents should feel comfortable letting teenagers watch it with limited profanity and violence.

For example, the most harrowing scene unfolds inside a climate-controlled tank, as the camera peers out through frosted glass that distorts the deadly chaos happening outside. Not only is this a slick stylistic choice, but it also simultaneously puts us in the shoes of the character inside the tank, watching the exterior events unfold in horror.

By Act 3, you’ll pretty much guess where it’s going with the emergence of a cookie-cutter villain mastermind surrounded by shipping containers in a finale we’ve seen before. Even the final twists are a bit predictable, albeit satisfying to the emotional arc.

If you enjoy this, check out Bruce Dern’s gem “Freaks” (2018), which trended on Netflix at the start of quarantine in March. It’s a great example of a genre slowburn, opening with the claustrophobia of “Room” (2013) then slowly revealing its mutant concept.

In the end, everything suffers in comparison to HBO’s “Watchmen” (2019), which is about to sweep the Emmy Awards as a masterwork that we’ll be dissecting for decades, but “Project Power” is still a trip that will provide your superpower fix.

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