Producers: Eric Newman and Bryan Unkeless Director: Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman Screenplay: Mattson Tomlin Cast: Jamie Foxx, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Dominique Fishback, Rodrigo Santoro, Colson Baker, Allen Maldonado, Amy Landecker, Courtney B. Vance, Kyanna Simpson, Andrene Ward-Hammond, Casey Neistat, Tait Fletcher, Yoshi Sudarso, Jazzy De Lisser and Rose Bianco Distributor: Netflix
Though the script is basically cobbled together from scores of comic books and other movies (most obviously “Limitless” from 2011), this Netflix release from the directing team of Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman (“Catfish”) has enough well-choreographed action—along with a strong cast—to make it a watchable diversion, even if the final confrontation is pretty rote.
The sci-fi concept driving the plot is that a futuristic pill, looking rather like a glistening cold tablet, that, once twisted and swallowed, gives the user some special power for five minutes. What it might be depends on the consumer—each person apparently has his own superpower waiting to be unleashed, whether it be super-strength, super-speed, a penchant for instant camouflaging, or turning into a human fireball. The possibilities are limitless, as Bradley Cooper might observe. (Curiously enough, the same idea drove the recent animated kidflick “SamSam.”)
There is, however, a catch. Instead of giving the user a superpower, the pill just might kill him instantly (in one case, a guy simply explodes)—so prospective consumers might have second thoughts. (The comparison to taking any drug, legal or not, is clear.)
As the movie opens, a major cog in the distribution of the product, a sleazy sort called Biggie (Rodrigo Santoro), offers free samples to any array of New Orleans drug dealers, including Newt (Colson Baker). Newt enlists his cousin Robin (Dominique Fishback), a teen who hopes to become a successful rapper, as one of his salespeople; she’s essentially a good kid, but needs money to pay for an operation for her sick mother (Andrene Ward-Hammond), no less. She also supplies pills to Frank Shaver (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a cop who uses them, against the rules of his captain (Courtney P. Vance), to make himself virtually bulletproof in order to stand a chance against the super-powered freaks wreaking havoc in the city. In turn, he feels protective toward her.
Simultaneously another fellow shows up to do battle with Biggie’s ring. He’s Art (Jamie Foxx), also known as The Major, an ex-soldier whose mission, as it happens, is a very personal one. He first has a fiery confrontation with Newt, which in turn leads him to track down Robin and force her to help him in his search for Biggie. It’s at the latter’s club, where he’s hosting a sales pitch for a South American buyer in which a young woman (Jazzy De Lisser) turns to ice when she takes a dose (the expected allusion to “Frozen” is not overlooked), that Art and Frank first encounter one another, and after some initial trepidation on both sides they join forces.
That leads to their big confrontation aboard a huge cargo ship with the scheme’s ultimate villain, Dr. Gardner (Amy Landecker), the mad scientist of the piece, who as it happens is holding someone precious to Art as a hostage, explaining the motive behind his desperation. Of course, Robin is integral to helping them succeed in overcoming a small army of defenders, most carrying pills that endow them with imposing powers too.
“Project Power” cleverly creates a trio of heroes representing different viewer favorites—the mysterious outsider, the tough rogue cop and the spunky kid—thus guaranteeing appeal to various segments of the audience. And it casts them well, with Foxx bringing his natural likability, along with surprisingly convincing brawn, to Art, and Gordon-Levitt the smoldering intensity he’s been honing as an alternative to his more familiar comic loopiness to Frank. They’re joined to good effect by Fishback, who did fine work in “The Hate U Know” and here makes Robin instantly ingratiating, if never really credible. But then the whole movie is a highly derivative lark that has no resemblance to real life but does manage to be fantasy fun.
The rest of the cast is pretty functional, and some (like Vance and Landecker) are underused, but for the most part Joost and Schulman get solid work from them. The craft contributions—Michael Simmonds’ cinematography, Naomi Shohan’s production design, and Jeff McEvoy’s editing—are all first-rate, even if, as is usual, some of the action scenes are too hectically shot and cut to make what’s going on entirely clear. On the other hand, the visual effects supervised by Ivan Moran and other special effects overseen by Yves Debono are excellent, as is the stunt work. Nor does the music by Joseph Trapanese and rapper Chika grate as much as one might expect.
“Project Power” leaves room for a sequel at the close. In this case it may not be an urgent necessity, but neither is it an unwelcome threat.