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Netflix’s ‘Project Power’ a super start

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Everyone knows that superhero movies are big business these days. The MCU and DCEU have both proven to be massive moneymakers, bringing in billions of dollars for the studios. What we sometimes forget, however, is that these films are being built on a foundation of source material that runs decades deep. That depth provides a wealth of ready-made narrative and loads of context.

As you might imagine, these means that creating movies based on more limited or obscure source material can result in varying degrees of success. And when you start talking about wholly original ideas, with no IP serving to shore them up structurally, well – you’ve got a task ahead of you.

Netflix has offered up just such an idea with their new movie “Project Power.” Specifically – what if there was a pill you could take that would give you superpowers for five minutes? But there’s a catch: you won’t know what your power will be until you take the pill … and there’s a chance you might just explode.

“Project Power” is a big-budget action-adventure that, while liberally borrowing from other sources, still manages to be more or less its own thing. Sure, it’s a touch derivative in spots, but it also has a couple of top-tier talents heading the call list (Jamie Foxx and Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and an up-and-coming directing team at the helm (Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman). It’s not a wheel reinvention; this movie hits the beats we’ve come to expect from superhero cinema and does so in a familiar way. However, there’s just enough different here to make things interesting not just for the average viewer, but for the hardcore Marvel and DC stans as well.

A new drug has hit the streets of New Orleans. Called simply “Power,” the pill grants the taker superhuman power for five minutes. You don’t know what your power is until you take it; some powers are wonderous, but others might leave you dead. That’s the risk with Power.

Robin (Dominique Fishback, “The Hate U Give”) is a teenager whose cousin Newt (Machine Gun Kelly, “The King of Staten Island”) has a connection with the shadowy figures who have introduced Power to the city. She’s dealing the drug; one of her customers is a New Orleans police officer named Frank (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), who uses Power to help him combat the criminal types who have used their new abilities for nefarious purposes.

Things get complicated when a man calling himself the Major (Jamie Foxx) comes into town, looking to track down the men behind the men behind the current influx of Power. He’s got his own connection to the drug and those distributing it – and very personal reasons for wanting to take them down.

Eventually, the paths of these three – Robin, Frank and the Major – fully intersect, leaving them to decide whether to struggle against one another or to become reluctant allies. Each of them has reasons to want Power off the streets, but all three also have mixed motivations regarding what the drug can do for them.

“Project Power” isn’t a Marvel movie or a DC movie, though it is certainly influenced by both. One imagines the goal is for some sort of ongoing life for it, whether that means more films or a TV series or whatever. The danger of that goal is that the present iteration of the story will feel somehow incomplete or overly expository. Happily, that sense of planting the franchise seed is present, but not to the detriment of the in the moment viewing experience.

It’s a concept with legs, for sure. The notion of every person having that sort of superhuman potential at their fingertips combined with the inherent danger of the source is one that allows for a lot of interesting storytelling possibilities.

But this movie stands on its own. Creating this sort of egalitarian distribution of power and adding an element of illicitness results in a film that is part superhero flick, part thriller, part procedural – and the mix works.

It works because Joost and Schulman are able to bring together the big, flashy set pieces with the smaller, more intimate moments. Yes, we’re here for the superpowers – and we get plenty of that; there are some legitimately impressive super sequences at various points throughout – but “Project Power” elevates itself in the development of its character motivations and relationships. Now, I’m not here to tell you that this is some hard-hitting drama – it isn’t – but it’s a movie that tries to help us care about the people involved. Those stakes are the difference and serve to elevate the experience.

It doesn’t hurt that “Project Power” has a top-tier top-billed pair. Both men have ventured into the superhero realm previously – Jamie Foxx as Electro in the ill-fated Andrew Garfield Spider-Man series; Joseph Gordon-Levitt as not-really-Robin-but-totally-Robin in Christopher Nolan’s Batman films – so this is familiar territory. Add to that the obvious talent possessed by both and you’ve got a recipe for success. Each finds their own way into the desperate desire to protect that drives their respective characters. They’re both great and fun to watch – big surprise, I know.

What IS a surprise, however, is the performance given by Fishback. For a young actor to step into a situation like this, to serve as the third point of a triangle where the other two are A-list stars – it’s impressive as hell. And it’s not like she just holds her own. She shines. It’s an excellent performance that’s every bit as good as the strong performances offered up by her co-stars.

“Project Power” deftly navigates the many obstacles that come with starting superhero cinema from scratch. It’s a blend of super-concepts that works, thanks to some smart narrative choices, some undeniably cool action sequences and three outstanding performances at the top. Don’t be surprised if Netflix winds up returning to this universe again and again in the years to come.

[4 out of 5]

Last modified on Monday, 17 August 2020 08:26

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