Review by James Lindorf
Project Power is the first film made under the Screen Arcade banner since the company inked a first-look deal with Netflix back in 2018. Eric Newman has been working with Netflix since 2013, serving as showrunner and executive producer on shows like Hemlock Grove and Narcos. It was on Bright’s set, where Eric would first work with his future business partner, Producer Bryan Unkeless. Before joining the Bright team, Unkless already had a string of hits under his belt, including The Hunger Games series, and just two months later, he helped release the Oscar-nominated I, Tonya.
Screenwriter Mattson Tomlin may not be a household name, but that could be changing quickly. Project Power is his first big-budget movie, and they are going to keep rolling in, starting with next year’s “The Batman,” which he co-wrote with director Matt Reeves. After that, Tomlin will be reteaming with the directors of Project Power on the live-action adaptation of Mega Man. Screen Arcade initially sought a director who could juggle the high concept of Project Power with the emotion of down-to-earth characters. In the end, they didn’t find one; they found two in Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost.
Joost and Schulman have been a directing team for the last decade, and in that time, they have dabbled in a lot of genres, including drama, horror, and action. Their most significant success is still their first film, Catfish. The documentary followed Ariel’s younger brother Nev as they tried to figure out who he had been talking to online for over a year. That film launched a very successful show on MTV, where the pair still serve as executive producers. It was such a phenomenon it even resulted in the word Catfish being added to the dictionary. The duo brought in Cinematographer Michael Simmonds was responsible for filming the 2018 Halloween movie as well as Joost and Schulman’s action thriller Nerve. Together they embraced practical effects whenever possible over CGI and made a good-looking film from opening to close.
In Project, Power word is spreading on the streets of New Orleans about a mysterious new pill that unlocks the user’s latent superpowers. For five minutes, you could be bulletproof, run at highway speeds, climb walls, or be made entirely of ice. The only catch is that you don’t know what will happen until you take it. You may be the most powerful person on the planet for 5 minutes, or if your body can’t contain the influx of power, you might explode. A person looking for a new way to have fun is one thing, but once the pill begins to escalate crime within the city, the police are woefully outclassed. Local cop Frank (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) teams with teenage dealer Robin (Dominique Fishback) to make sure he always has a pill or two for when things hit the fan. Following the drug’s path into the city is a former soldier Art (Jamie Foxx). Fueled by a secret vendetta, he is hunting down the pill’s distributors, which puts Robin on his radar. Together The cop, the dealer, and the Major will have to risk everything if they want to track and take down the group responsible for creating the pill.
There are two real standout scenes in the movie. The first is when we get our initial look at how the pills work and how devastating the powers can be. The action scene between Newt and the Major is the best in the film. It blends high octane action with Cronenbergesque body horror imagery. The way Newt’s body reacts to his power is both awe-inspiring, and a little gut-wrenching, and nothing else for the rest of the movie comes close. The second exceptional scene is when Art and Robin finally connect a people and not a hunter and bait. Robin has just finished stitching up Art after his latest fight, and they discuss what real power is. Art shares the truth that the system is designed for chewing up and spitting out young black women. Still, if Robin can find her power, she can buck the system and achieve her dreams. This isn’t about her superpower, but what is unique about her, what makes her stand out. For Robin, it is her ability as a lyricist. Once Art finds out, she wants to be a rapper; he puts her to the test with a word game. Fishback, who rapped in the film, and on its closing track, did a fantastic job delivering the lines written by Chika, who plays Robin’s friend Akeela. Her freestyling with words like seismograph is one of the film’s stand out moments and should return if there is a chance for a sequel.
Action movies are beloved for being two reasons. Either they are just an all-around very well-made movie, or they are flat out fun despite their other shortcomings. With this tremendous cast, the film could only be so bad, but it is held back by the subdued action. A budget of $85 million is nothing to sneeze at, but it is in the rage of 50% of that of the upcoming Black Widow film from Marvel. The budget restricts the ability to have superpowered people going at it. When those fights do happen, they are more physical than flashy, and that is going to leave lots of people hungry for more. Because of that, Project Power won’t be universally loved. However, it will be another major hit for Netflix, and I won’t be surprised if we hear a sequel is announced before the end of the year. Project Power may not be a cultural phenom like Catfish. Still, it is easily the best fictional film Schulman and Joost have ever produced. Come back after you’ve watched and tell me, am I lying?
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