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Non-Review Review: Project Power

Project Power is an oddity, a strange clash of style and content that never quite aligns but results in some interesting chemistry.

The basic plot of Project Power is fairly straightforward. A mysterious designer drug known only as “power” has arrived on the streets of New Orleans. These pills cause the user to spontaneously manifest a random superpower for five minutes – that power can be awesome, mundane or fatal. It’s a basic set-up as these sorts of stories go, and its rooted in the tropes of the modern superhero genre: human experimentation, industrialised production. unchecked power fantasies.

The bitterest pill.

Project Power uses this central plot element to two competing ends. In terms of direction, the simple-yet-flexible set-up serves as a motivator for a variety of high-concept and high-energy action sequences as characters manifest strange abilities that inevitably alter the dynamics of one-on-one combat, allowing for impressive stunts and frantic violence. In terms of theme, Project Power uses this set-up as a metaphorical commentary on the War on Drugs and the historical exploitation of marginalised communities by those in… well, power.

These are two interesting angles, even if they are never explored as creatively as one might hope. Indeed, the two approaches make strange bedfollows, with Project Power feeling like a paranoid conspiracy thriller that movies with the hyper pacing of a modern direct-to-video action film. It doesn’t really work, but the cocktail is fascinating enough that it holds attention.

Power play.

To be fair, there’s enough going on with these two angles that an audience member can almost forgive Project Power for its sizable blind spots. To put it simply, Project Power is not a film that is especially interested in character or motivation. It is not a film that favours intimacy or insight. Its characters often feel like archetypes at best and plot functions at worst, drawn in the broadest possible terms and never really developing into convincing approximations of human beings.

Art is a father who has thrown himself into a criminal underworld in order to recover his lost daughter, allowing Jamie Foxx to play something close to the dadsploitation genre codified by Liam Neeson in Taken. Frank is a cop with a short fuse and poor impulse control, who is himself secretly addicted to the drug that he’s trying to keep off the streets, like so many gritty and conflicted cops. Robin is a teenager who is selling drugs to make ends meet, and who ends up as a bridge between Art and Frank, and a surrogate daughter to Art.

Taken his shot.

To describe these character dynamics as functional would be a major overstatement. To the extent that the characters in Project Power work, they largely manage to advance the plot. However, there’s no room for any development or nuance as the film bounces from one scene to the next. This is disappointing given the appeal of Jamie Foxx and Joseph Gordon-Levitt as leading men. One of the better sequences in the film largely consists of a heightened comic interlude in which a near-naked Frank tries to de-escalate a tense situation.

The movie’s storytelling is similarly haphazard. Frank is introduced as an exposition delivery mechanism in an early bust, bluntly explaining how the eponymous drug works in a manner that recalls Clint Eastwood reading the back of a bottle of pills. “Some people take it and just blow up,” he explains. The film clumsily tries to cushion this industrial quantity of exposition by framing it as an homage to the classic “do you feel lucky?” monologue – and having Robin call it out as such – but it still feels incredibly clumsy.

Fair cop.

Perhaps the budget plays a role here. Project Power is quite a stylish and lavish production, even if the New Orleans setting may have been as much a practical as a narrative decision. However, the film tries to sell a crisis that is difficult to realise on the budget of a movie on a streaming service, leaving to Joseph Gordon-Levitt to sell lines about “bad guys using this stuff to take out whole precincts of cops single-handed.” Indeed, lines like that suggest a host of interesting questions: is this crime wave getting press coverage? what does the international press make of it?

Project Power isn’t really interested in this stuff. It’s more interested in bouncing from one setpiece to the next. The film has a compellingly kinetic visual style. It is very much a modern action film, one relying heavily on digital effects and often of frantic editing. Despite the freedom of the premise, and the potential of all these random superpowers, Project Power mostly depicts a fairly generic range of superpowers: explosions, pyrokinesis, invisibility, bulletproof skin, even bone spurs that evoke Wolverine.

The hottest take.

However, there are things to admire here. Michael Simmonds’ cinematography gives the film a bright and vivid sensibility, often is shades of gold and red, that make it feel like a live-action cartoon or comic book at times. This use of bright colours throughout the film actually helps integrate some of the computer-generated imagery into the film. The film already feels animated and hyperreal long before characters start spewing fire or punching dents in metal doors.

Even beyond the film’s stylistic sensibility, there are occasionally strong stylistic flourishes from directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman that serve the film well. One fight sequence is shot in what looks like a single long take in the background of a pan following a foregrounded character trapped inside a glass container. It’s deliberately designed to draw the audience’s attention to the construction of the movie, and so feels very much in line with the pulpy roots of the superhero genre from which Project Power proactively pilfers.

Dealing with criticism has given Joseph Gordon-Levitt some thick skin.

This pulpy atmosphere makes a strange juxtaposition with the themes of the movies around it. Project Power is perhaps the first truly paranoid superhero movie – if only because it doesn’t pull the same punches that Captain America: The Winter Soldier did. The metaphor that drives Project Power is hardly especially subtle, but it cannily blends the tropes of the superhero genre with the film’s setting to rather pointed effect.

Art believes that cities like New Orleans are being used as “field testing” or “clinical trials” for a drug that is being developed with a more sinister political purpose in mind. “Power goes where it always goes,” he muses when explaining who benefits from this arrangement. Project Power is playing with the trope of human experimentation that permeates the superhero genre, but filter through the experience of the marginalised communities who have historically been subjected to such exploitation.

Not entirely limp.

In doing so, Project Power does something admirably risky. It ties one of the core narrative archetypes of the defining genre of modern blockbuster cinema to a history of abuse of power: the Tuskegee syphilis experiment, human radiation experiments prisoners, even MK-ULTRA. Project Power is very aware of what it is doing. The New Orleans setting is integrated into these thematic dynamics, with Frank musing that “people in suits” have never been especially interested in helping the city or its communities in their time of desperation.

Of course, there’s a long history of pulp fiction exploring themes like these. Even Marvel Comics tackled some of this subtext with their Truth: Red, White and Black miniseries, although that seems unlikely to ever meaningfully work its way into the shared universe. More to the point, Project Power often feels of a piece with some of the more paranoid pop culture of the nineties, of shows like The X-Files that openly mapped real-life historical abuses to a fictional narrative framework like alien abduction and conspiracy. It’s fascinating to see that template applied to the superhero.

Where there’s a pill, someone will pay.

However, Project Power suffers slightly because that theme doesn’t really integrate with the movie’s larger action-driven aesthetic. The paranoid subtext in Project Power never truly has space to percolate as the characters bounce from one sequence to the next. There’s a short sequence in which Frank points out to Robin that all they have is Art’s conspiracy theories, and that those theories are unverifiable, but Project Power doesn’t leave any space for the uncertainty or ambiguity on which paranoid thrillers thrive.

The result is an experiment that doesn’t quite work, even if some of the elements in play are fascinating.

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