The reason why that iconic red pill/blue pill choice in The Matrix is so enduring is not only down to its different outcomes (and its wider thematic significance), but the fact that you cannot have both. You’re either allowed to blissfully continue your peacefully ignorant existence, or you’re lurched into the unknown; you can’t escape your weird fleshy pod and enjoy a seemingly delicious virtual steak in your beautiful prison.
If Project Power were Neo, however, it would snaffle both tablets and anything else like it in the room.
The thing is, this latest star-studded Netflix movie wants to have it all. It wants the ebullient tone of a Marvel superhero film, the strong violence of Kick-Ass, and be a serious state-of-the-nation piece all at once. And despite its encouraging premise, it never quite manages to do any of that especially well.
Project Power, directed by Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman (Catfish, Paranormal Activity 3 + 4), sees ex-soldier, Art (Jamie Foxx) and police officer, Frank (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) tracking the source of some mysterious drugs, spread surreptitiously by shady government and corporate entities, along with the fabulous, scene-stealing Dominique Fishback (The Hate U Give) as Robin. While Fishback excels with irresistible energy, Gordon-Levitt often has to be satisfied in a background role, and often gets the film’s worst lines.
In a way, these capsules are many different variations of the red pill. Ingesting one of the dangerously potent tablets comes with a risk: you get a superpower for five minutes, but you never know what you’re going to get.
There’s a game of chance to these potentially life-threatening superpowers, then: you could get something useful like becoming bulletproof or getting rubberized limbs, Mrs. Incredible-style, or you die instantly through instant detonation. It’s a little on the nose, allegorically-speaking, but there’s nevertheless an important message laced into the concept – my parents would certainly have had an easier time sitting me in front of this in lieu of engaging me in the classic ‘don’t do drugs’ talk.
But Project Power’s more serious ambitions are also bigger in scope. The setting of New Orleans is leveraged to emphasize the hardships of a city under-served in its reconstruction post-Hurricane Katrina, and ravaged by the opioid crisis. Early shots linger on deprived, boarded-up houses with idle occupants on their porches, and on housing projects coated in bright, foreshadowing graffiti.
Structural racism – “You’re a young, black woman, the system is designed to swallow you up,” Art tells Robin – and the shortcomings of American healthcare are also found between the film’s crosshairs. Unfortunately these points aren’t developed beyond the film’s early stages and, like many other films in the genre, it’s little more than contentious set dressing.
Either way, Project Power has a fun premise, but one that’s never really given the space to fully deliver. There’s an unpredictable thrill in anticipating the chemical boons coming to a character when they pop one, but there just aren’t that many of them. Quite a few are thrown in at the end as if they were an afterthought, and the film sags in the middle while the bewitching premise is left a little forgotten.
That said, as the five minutes of temporary abilities elapse, seeing the expensive visual effects is a joy. Slo-mo shots are used expertly to enhance bullets crushing against superpowered skulls, and the camera buries right down eye sockets to magnify the microscopic effects these synthetically-produced powers are having on the body.
Naturally this isn’t the film’s fault, but Project Power’s most effective cinematic moments only made me more desperate to go back to the cinema. My living room certainly isn’t the best place for it, but like Extraction and The Old Guard, it’s at least something to enjoy while I wait for my local to re-open.
But while the action scenes are strong, the bizarre humor squeezed into the film’s final third is jarring after the seriousness of what came before. It’s as if Project Power decides it wants to be on the slapstick end of the Marvel superhero spectrum – think Thor: Ragnorok or Ant-Man – as we get the classic ‘you went the wrong way’ gambit and a scene in which Art boasts about the skills of his crack squad, while Robin accidentally leaves the tannoy on.
In moments like this, it feels as if the directors are ticking off a checklist of what superhero films should have, without appreciating the nuances the film’s premise requires. Silly jokes clash in one section as gore and moral debates fit oddly in another. The result is a confused tone that undermines Project Power’s promising premise, but again that’s redeemed somewhat by its entertaining action scenes.
In the end, Project Power is a passable way of spending a couple of hours if your nearby theatre isn’t open yet. While the film doesn’t give off any side-affects or comedowns that make me want to spontaneously combust, it’s likely to at least make me suffer some light amnesia.