Do you remember movie theaters? Those things were fun — even in the heat of summer, you could get a $10 ticket for two hours of air conditioning, varying degrees of thrills, and the option to overspend on popcorn and M&Ms. Perhaps even better, this situation encouraged choosing outside of your comfort zone. Only so many different movies can be played on a theater’s limited number of screens at once, so instead of getting paralyzed by endlessly scrolling through the selection screens, you and your cohort just aimed for what sounded best and maybe enjoyed something you enjoyed. otherwise wouldn’t have tried.
Project power, available this weekend on Netflix, stars Jamie Foxx, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Dominique Fishback. It screams “summer action movie, available for a few weekends in July.” But in 2020, such things remain fantasies of the past. That’s unfortunate for many, many reasons, but one of the minor drawbacks of the current reality of the movie industry is that Project power is a good time that many people will just never see, maybe never even know they exist.
An archetype project
In a broad sense, Project power tells a classic tale of rulers conducting experiments on the rest of us. A shady science startup called Teleios has created a drug that gives people superpowers (the drug is obviously called Power). However, the drug is firmly in the development phase. Users don’t know what power they will develop – the list of classics includes chameleon-like camouflage, super power, regenerative ability, etc – but not all of them benefit users.
Despite the imperfections, this company has apparently grown a bit impatient. Rather than go through the proper (and slow) channels of standard scientific approval, Teleios is asking drug dealers in New Orleans to distribute their product across the city for a more informal trial. The goals are twofold: to see the drug’s shortcomings so that Teleios can continue to improve it, and to show its capabilities so that Teleios can sign hefty government contracts abroad.
However, unleashing superhero pills in an unsuspecting city has some consequences. For the “good” cop Frank (Gordon-Levitt), he notices that the NOPD handles every incident involving Power very differently and immediately surrenders to men in black suits. (“We know what happened the last time we counted on guys in suits to save New Orleans,” he bluntly tells the chief.) For high school student Robin (Fishback), she suddenly sees an easy way to make money. if her mother is dealing with diabetes and a lack of health insurance. And for military vet Art (Foxx), well, his daughter is missing and he has reason to believe she got caught up in this whole mess.
However, it starts to snow when Teleios invites a South American purchasing group to town and Art appears on the scene that same week. Both he and Frank want to reach the people behind Power, and the only person they know with a connection is Robin. But as the three begin to cross paths and get to know their common pursuits, more and more of Teleios’ pill-popping employees seem to be following in their tracks, intent on clearing anything that stands in the way of better drugs and more contracts.
The trailer for Netflix’s Project power.[/ars_trailer]
The strength lies in performing the well-known
If all that sounds familiar, it is. The world is getting (maybe) more “superpowers are complicated” stories this month with The new mutants currently scheduled for August 28 and that of Amazon the boys returned shortly after on September 4. And today, in the dark corners of every social media platform, there are plenty of fantasies about “governments manipulating the public to maintain control.” (Legitive versions of that, of course, can be found in any newspaper with government reports: “In the real world, power goes where it always goes, to the people who already had it,” as Art puts it.)
But Project power works – and would be nice to sit at a drive-in, on the couch, or in a theoretical risk-free theater – because of the skillful execution of a well-known blueprint. That starts with the performances. It’s been a while since Fox or Gordon-Levitt had a hit movie, but perhaps their best work has always been subtle in the action genre, from Django until baby driver until looper until Dark Knight Rises† Each manages battle scenes and daring vehicular chases/escapes (JGL even had a bike accident during filming, but you wouldn’t know). Fishback is arguably the most consistently charming of the three leads. For example, every time Robin shows the growing power behind her rap dreams, it’s one of the best moments of the movie. Even if it’s not entirely relevant to the plot in the end, I appreciate a budding rapper with the range to refer to Celine Dion one minute and Dwight Howard the next.
The film also has an ideal setting for our stuck-up home time, as it immerses you lightly in the unique community of New Orleans. As someone who’s lived in the city for a handful of years, I’m probably 20 percent more likely to enjoy a movie that’s not just set there, but actually produced in the Crescent City. (This is how CSI: New Orleans stays in the air, right? Also #LoganIsUnderrated.) Well-traveled viewers will recognize notable spots in the Lower Ninth Ward or the most famous abandoned theme park in Hollywood among more local layouts like the street car, Blue Bikes or background views of the Superdome. Frank’s Steve Gleason sweater or Robin with Zion Williamson as her phone background simply represents the powdered sugar on top.
The greatest driver of Project powerHowever, success happens off screen. For a budding feature film writer, Mattson Tomlin’s script is well paced, that is, this movie starts and stays alive. Maybe things like Robin’s rap scenes are redundant, but they are consistently welcomed and never stay welcome any longer. That’s indicative of Tomlin’s work in general – there just isn’t a ton of aimless landscape-munching stuff, long character monologues, or overwrought action sequences. Perhaps some viewers will be annoyed with some morals that feel like tacked on (Art keeps telling Robin to nurture her power to fight those in power; Frank has a lot of “this is my town” moments fighting various organizational corruptions) or with some important exposition moments, but the latter is perhaps intended to help people who view this as a more traditional Netflix movie, albeit half paying attention. You don’t have to squeeze too hard to see how Tomlin recently plunged into screenplay writing The batter.
Project power is ultimately the type of movie you used to be able to reliably find at the theater every summer: an action movie that flashes a bit of comedy, starring someone you want to spend nearly two hours with, and happening enough to keep the audience moving through may not be super complex plot. (I haven’t looked on my phone here at all, that says something about a Netflix movie in 2020.)
Even pre-COVID-19, which devastated the film industry, studios and theaters were less likely to make and distribute films like this. As production budgets grew and the need for a big box office hit grew, surefire ways to continue that intricate financial act became the norm: well-known franchises or IP, kids’ movies, vehicles designed specifically for an A-lister of the moment (that Foxx definitely qualified once, but not today – am I the only one whose family dragged them along to see sexy) Robin Hood during the holiday season of 2018?), or more Oscar-aspired author projects or filmmakers that excite the critical community. Other things struggled to get made and/or find their way to the theaters.
And so streaming has stepped up to fill the void, Netflix in particular is doing this in a big way. By The discovery, What happened to Monday? and Stupid until triple border, extraction, and the old guard, Netflix may have become the reliable spot for what used to be a summer staple at the cineplex.
Project power falls in this line. It won’t win an Oscar, capture the internet zeitgeist, and take the critical community by storm. Netflix didn’t even have Project power shown in the top of the page banner when I signed up to view it Friday morning. But these capable B-movies or popcorn movies can be fun if done right or even appropriately –Project power certainly qualify.
List image by SKIP BOLEN/NETFLIX © 2020