Comic book/superhero films have gotten to the point where their codes and conventions have been so ingrained in our culture that we’ve seen many films in this genre without a single panel of printed source material. Pixar’s “The Incredibles” comes to mind, which serves as a unique twist and commentary on what was a budding genre, before the Marvel Cinematic Universe propelled it into the stratosphere in terms of box office success and pop culture awareness.
2020’s “Project Power” is another such superhero film that borrows heavily from the conventions and framing mechanics of graphic novels and superhero films, but doesn’t have any direct source material of its own. Written by Matt Tomlin, the same screenwriter for the upcoming film “The Batman” starring Robert Pattinson, and co-directed by “Catfish” and “Paranormal Activity” alumni Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, “Project Power” takes place in New Orleans, where a pharmaceutical/defense company named Teleios has flooded the illegal drug market with a drug called Power — a glowing pill that, when ingested, either grants the user superpowers for 5 minutes, or kills them. If you are granted superpowers, you will be granted those same powers every time you take the drug, but there is no way of knowing if it will grant you powers or kill you — or what powers you will get — until you swallow it.
We follow Art (Jamie Foxx), an army veteran and distressed father whose daughter was kidnapped by Teleios. He runs into Robin Reilly (Dominique Fishback) a teenage “Power” dealer who regularly sells to and works with NOPD Officer Frank Shaver (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), and interrogates her in order to work his way up the chain of distribution. Apparently Teleios is using New Orleans as a way to perform “clinical trials” on the drug, in order to perfect it. Shaver quickly learns from Art that Teleios has paid off everyone on the force, and that if he wants to get real justice for the people who flooded his city with drugs, he’s going to have to work off the grid, which leads to an unlikely alliance between Shaver, Art and Robin to take the company, and their drugs, down.
From a cinematography and shot composition standpoint, this film has some truly awesome shots that would feel right at home in a graphic novel. Its New Orleans setting is full of bright, vibrant colors, and cinematographer Michael Simmonds takes full advantage of them. There are a lot of great uses of contrast in this film that create a unique cinematographic style to the film. Darks are harshly deep, as are colors, and lighting is also used in many interesting and creative ways.
Unfortunately, while individual frames are absolutely beautiful, what we get in between many of them falls flat, with the film’s action being incredibly bad, and the writing of several scenes failing to properly set up what should be hugely impactful moments in the film. Nothing in Joost and Schulman’s filmography suggests that they know how to film action, and it would seem that they opted to not try with “Project Power”, often making the camera shake so much you can’t see what’s going on, or opting to just entirely not focus on it altogether. There is a scene where Art single-handedly takes on an entire room of Teleios donors and soldiers, and the room features a glass testing chamber in which a minor character tests Power before perishing, and instead of showing us Art’s epic fight, the directors only show us glimpse of it by instead switching to the minor character’s perspective of which only brief flashes of the fight are visible, which feels like a huge cop out.
There are two distracting cameos in this film, by YouTuber Casey Neistat and Machine Gun Kelly, who add very little to the film and who I suspect were given minor roles in order to tap into their sizable platforms for free advertising. They’re harmless enough, but they feel out of place.
Rodrigo Santoro and Amy Landecker are fine as Teleios’ main distributor and executive, but are never given the chance to develop past mustache-twirling villains. It’s a shame, because I think there was a lot of room for the film to tell an original story based partially off the real-life attitudes and culture of America’s broken health insurance and pharmaceutical industries, especially in the midst of a global pandemic.
“Project Power” has great performance in its three leads that are unfortunately stifled by the failures of its script. I like Foxx, Gordan-Levitt and Fishback’s characters, but they never develop into anything unique, and while I appreciated the story the script was trying to tell, its world, its villains, and everything else besides its premise was half-baked.
But I do love the cinematography in this film. If it was paired with good action and a script in which Art, Robin and Officer Shaver learn and grow as characters I would hold this film in much higher regard. That’s what I think is mostly missing from this film: We not only don’t get to know these characters and their world enough to fully understand why they’re doing what they’re doing, but they largely are the same characters from start to finish. They react to different situations, but there’s not much sense of character development.
“Project Power” gets a 5.5/10