Nowadays it seems like any character in TV or film with even the slightest supernatural abilities has Marvel or DC plastered on his forehead. Gone are the days of “Dredd” and “Hancock,” superhero films capable of entertaining without decades of comic book lore to support them.
Now, the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the DC Extended Universe dominate the box office and superhero stories alike. This monopoly has proven beneficial, delivering some of the best movies year in and year out, but it’s left little room for these superhero-adjacent stories. But with theaters shuttered and audiences craving some superhero-esque action, Netflix has entered the fray.
“Project Power,” the streaming service’s latest blockbuster-level original film tiptoes its way into the superhero genre without source material to draw from or established fan bases. While it may measure up to what audiences are used to seeing on the big screen when it comes to big-budget special effects, “Project Power” leaves a lot to be desired both narratively and technically.
In modern-day New Orleans, a new drug is flooding the streets. But this pill doesn’t just get you high. For five minutes users are granted a mystery super power that can range from super strength to invisibility, and sometimes even results in a morbid and sudden death. The only catch is that you never know what your power is until you try it out for the first time.
Thanks to the pills, crime is on the rise in New Orleans, and Frank (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a local cop, is trying to put an end to the abuse of power before it gets out of hand. But Frank isn’t exactly on the straight and narrow himself – Robin, a teenage drug dealer, has been feeding him a steady supply of power to feed his addiction to being invincible. But when Art (Jamie Foxx), a former soldier with a secret vendetta, shows up in the city, it’s revealed that the drug may be serving a more sinister purpose.
Despite the promise of a new and unique superhero property to explore, “Project Power” rarely feels like it dives deeper than surface level. Sure, the special effects are flashy and rival anything on the big screen, but the action sequences that often accompany them are messy and overly complex. Unlike some of Netflix’s earlier action hits from this summer like “Extraction” or “The Old Guard” that delivered tactical fight sequences, those in “Project Power” depend too heavily on twisting camera angles and quick cuts rather than expert choreography.
Beyond the action, the story follows a fairly cookie-cutter action formula. Rough and tumble characters must take young innocents under their wing in order to stop a big bad corporation from monetizing a dangerous power. It’s something audiences have seen done before and done better. On top of that, even the powers that come with the drugs are pretty standard – super strength, invisibility, invincibility, fire and ice. There’s nothing here that feels fresh or new, which feels like a missed opportunity, considering the freedom writer Mattson Tomlin had from any existing IP.
One of the most compelling and redeeming parts of “Project Power,” though, is the performances and characters played by Foxx and Fishback. In a world where superhero movies – even at the highest level – often favor explosions over character development, these two deliver a truly believable bond onscreen as Art and Robin.
Ultimately, “Project Power” fails to live up to its potential, settling for a by the numbers action romp. It’s entertaining enough to make do in a summer lacking major blockbuster thrills, but before long it will be lost in the shuffle of Netflix Originals.
“Project Power” debuts exclusively on Netflix August 14.
Zach Goins is a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association based in Raleigh, N.C. Zach co-founded Inside The Film Room in 2018 and serves as Editor-in-Chief of the website and co-host of the podcast. Zach also serves as a film critic for CLTure.org.