Even before COVID-19 forced movie theaters to shut their doors en masse and studios to indefinitely delay their newest big-budget offerings, the potency and shelf life of the traditional, four-quadrant superhero blockbuster were visibly on the decline.
In the last four or so years especially, the optimistic, unitard-strapped sheen of big-screen superheroes like Captain America, Superman and Spider-Man have begun to grow visibly tiresome for a certain, more cynical crowd. The zeitgeist has begun dipping its toe in stories like “Deadpool,” “Logan” or Amazon Prime’s “The Boys” — moral quagmires featuring psychologically damaged, sometimes bloodthirsty central figures whose hero-or-villain status remains undecided.
Though it’s lacking the advantage of popular intellectual property that some of those titles enjoy, “Project Power,” Netflix’s new big-budget, star-studded action flick, aims to breach its way into the growing celebrated tradition of high-concept superhero dramas brimming with grit, grime and ethical question marks.
One could reasonably assume the elevator pitch for “Project Power” had studios chomping at the bit left and right: A technically legal but highly volatile pill simply referred to as Power, promising to activate a unique superpower in the user for five minutes per dose, hits the streets of New Orleans. Teenaged dealer Robin (Dominique Fishback) enjoys a professional relationship with streetwise cop Frank (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), who can’t get enough of the literal invincibility the new narcotic gives him, leading to a clear though little-seen tension between himself and his captain (Courtney B. Vance).
When Art (Jamie Foxx), an ex-soldier with a mysterious vendetta against the drug, kidnaps Robin and uses her connections to hack and slash his way up the chain of distribution, she comes to discover the corruption that lies beneath her line of work, an ethical rot that has trickled its way into the local police force.
It’s impossible to knock “Project Power” for a lack of originality. Writer Mattson Tomlin pursues an idea “The Boys” aptly tackled last year: What are the consequences when so many people receive the gift of awesome, otherworldly power? Throw in themes of drug addiction and peddling, interclass suppression and government malfeasance, and you’ve got a unique cross between “X-Men” and “Training Day.”
But for a story with a setup so heavy with potential, “Project Power” is disappointingly weak and misguided in its follow-through. Instead of committing its full energy to translating one or two major themes into vibrant, action-packed allegories, the film instead flinchingly dips its toe in a plethora of moral questions it’s ultimately too afraid to resolve, hoping we’ll be too lost in the frenetic, bloodsoaked onscreen exploits to notice.
To be sure, there’s no shortage of flash or pizzazz in the movie’s formal elements. Directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman’s neon-soaked color palette illuminates adrenaline-soaked action that is, half the time, admittedly compelling. The other half, however, it’s near incoherent, betraying Joost and Schulman’s weak ability to establish a sense of location for the audience.
Anchoring the film, giving it more of a sense of heart than it deserves, are the three main leads. The chemistry and sense of empathy between Foxx and Fishback simply couldn’t have been written, particularly in a script that rushes the development of their relationship far beyond the realm of believability. Gordon-Levitt makes a welcome return to mainstream movies four years after “Snowden,” and while the teeth-gritting, often cliché-addled lines he’s forced to deliver in his overly serious scenes as a capital-C Cop are impossible to look past, he shines when the movie leans on him for moments of levity. An undeniably clever scene in which he faces a couple federal ne’er-do-wells while clad only in a towel give the second act a desperately-needed injection of spirit.
While its performances are engrossing and its premise more than sufficient to raise a pleasantly intrigued eyebrow, whatever messages “Project Power” attempts to convey, any discussions it wishes to provoke, are lost in the murk of often shoddy filmmaking and lackluster scriptwork. Though one can only hope the coming awards season will lead Netflix to up its game, for now, the streaming giant’s middle-of-the-year slump of uninspired, mediocre movies is starting to grow tiresome.
John Battiston is a Times-Mirror reporter and founder of the Reel Underdogs podcast. Contact him at email@example.com. Reel Underdogs is not affiliated with the Times-Mirror.