Since bursting onto the scene ten years ago with Catfish, directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman have found a groove directing genre movies of a particular flavor, including a couple Paranormal Activity flicks and enjoyably dumb Nerve. Their latest movie is Project Power, a superhero movie that isn’t derived from a comic book but from superhero movies themselves, borrowing ideas and superhuman powers from pretty much every comic book franchise under the sun. Scripted by Mattson Tomlin, Project Power is as scientifically stupid as Lucy, but it doesn’t waste nearly as much time as that movie trying to explain itself. The power concept boils down: animals have neat evolutionary quirks, wouldn’t it be cool if we could harness those abilities for ourselves? Well, here’s a pill that gives you five minutes of superhuman power loosely based on some biology mumbo-jumbo! But wait! Maybe the pill will also make you explode!
The concept of Project Power is good—not so much the wildlife biology angle, but the rest of it—it’s just a shame the movie doesn’t take full advantage of the premise. Nerve skates by on its own simplicity, but Project Power, rather unwisely, reaches a little beyond its grasp, invoking the Tuskegee experiments and the to-this-day-controversial medical harvesting of cells from Henrietta Lacks, without offering anything meaningful about those things except “people have always done shady sh-t to advance science”. (The Guest handles this better by refusing to explain anything and simply making innocent characters deal with the inevitable fallout of such institutionalized amorality.) Project Power also states that “real” superheroes would, inevitably, be used to benefit existing, corrupt systems of power, ground MUCH better trod by The Boys.
But it’s not a total loss. Project Power offers a few decent ideas, such as the physiological after-effect of using a power pill—the human torch guy is covered in burn scars, the Hulk-like guy has sagging skin from previous transformations. This is exactly the kind of concept the movie could take further and mine for greater interest, but instead it settles for a handful of physical cues about how the powers affect people beyond their use. There is also one fight scene staged from the perspective of a trapped person whose power is going haywire, which is more interesting than watching yet another punchy-shooty fight sequence. Also, this is an $80 million movie, and it looks like most of that money went into the power displays, which look better than anything in pretty much any X-Men movie. In fact, Project Power does a better display of Dark Phoenix’s power than Dark Phoenix did.
The rest of the budget went to Jamie Foxx and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and it was WORTH IT. Like Nerve before it, Project Power papers over its trouble spots with charismatic performances. Foxx stars as Art (“The Major”, the only person with anything like a superhero moniker), a father desperately searching for his kidnapped daughter, and JGL stars as Det. Frank Shaver, a New Orleans cop with a spotty accent who is both addicted to power pills (he’s bulletproof) and trying to break up the power trade in the city. They team up at the behest of Robin (Dominique Fishback, OUTSTANDING and next to be seen in Judas and the Black Messiah), a teenaged power dealer who dreams of becoming a rapper. It feels like a lot more could be done with Robin than just make her a plucky sidekick, but Fishback is so wildly charming you almost don’t notice the shortcomings of the writing. At least she’s not helpless—Robin gets to make meaningful contributions to the action.
Project Power doesn’t work as well as Nerve, but Joost and Schulman have established themselves as reliably decent genre directors, who at least know to cast capable actors to elevate mediocre scripts. The untapped potential of Project Power is a little frustrating, but the combined efforts of Foxx, JGL, and Fishback at least make it watchable. Like The Old Guard, this could become a franchise for Netflix, I would like to see rather more inventive filmmakers than Joost and Schulman tackle this premise. There is a LOT that can be done here, and Project Power is just barely scratching the surface.
Attached - Jamie Foxx out for dinner at Nobu on the weekend.