Jamie Foxx finds his sweet spot in Netflix's magic-pill thriller Project Power: Review
Maybe in the future, we'll define ourselves by Netflix eras: First came the coming-of-age (The Kissing Booth, To All the Boys I've Loved Before), then the cozy, kooky rom-coms (Someone Great, Always Be My Maybe). Now, in the summer of our discontent, we have action: Extraction, The Old Guard, Spenser Confidential. These are big, brutal movies for small screens, bloody and hectic and stacked with the kind of stars who don't "do" streaming: Charlize Theron, Chris Hemsworth, Mark Wahlberg.
Project Power has all that, and an Oscar winner in Jamie Foxx. It also has a faintly ridiculous sci-fi concept (there's a pill, see, and it makes you wildly, unpredictably powerful for approximately five minutes). But it's a lot smarter than the trailer and the opening scenes get across — and surprisingly fun, too, in the way that movies like Lucy and Limitless are fun: the kind of loony, kinetic thriller that knows it's all just shenanigans, and leans in.
Unlike those movies, Power (out Aug. 14) springs from a far more diverse cast — the best part of which might be Dominique Fishback (The Deuce, The Hate U Give). As Robin, a shrewd but reluctant student with dreams of a rap career and a reality that involves dealing after school to support her ailing single mother, she's not the sort of girl to try her own merchandise; more the kind to find a useful friend in Frank (a game but vaguely miscast Joseph Gordon-Levitt), the local cop who serves as both her loyal customer and de facto bodyguard.
When he's not getting her out of street scrapes, he's busy trying to crack down on the new narcotic running through New Orleans: some kind of chem-lab mystery that looks like a tiny Edison bulb and appears to turn its users into something between the Hulk and randomized X-Men. With one dose, will you become a human flamethrower, or impervious to bullets? Nobody knows! But man, what a rush. (Frank likes to think of his own using as competitive edge; how else to keep up with a suspect who suddenly runs like a cheetah?)
Enter Art (Foxx), a lone-wolf vigilante type who the authorities claim is the true force behind Power, though he seems as desperate to root out the real source as they are determined to protect it — and he knows enough, at least, to guess that Robin can help him get there. The contours of everything that follows will be more than familiar to anyone who's darkened the doors of a multiplex: the unlikely friendship between a grown mercenary and a precocious kid, the adrenalized chase scenes and breathless Big Government conspiracies, the certainty that good will triumph in the end.
But Foxx, still a movie star to his bones, imbues Art with both fierce purpose and breezy charisma; it would be tempting to call his signature acting mode "relaxed intensity," if that were thing. And Fishback's Robin feels more real than almost any other teenager in recent screen memory: funny and sullen and whip-smart, but also sensibly freaked out by the things that any other ordinary mortal would be. (The intermittent freestyles she drops — actually penned for the film by one of her onscreen classmates, Jane Chika Oranika, a.k.a. the rising Alabama MC Chika — are also shockingly great for "movie raps.")
Directing duo Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman (Catfish) fumble the setup a little early on with silly exposition, but they quickly find a groove with Mattson Tomlin's nimble, fast-moving script —and work hard, too, to soak the movie in its multicultural setting, turning New Orleans into a sort of low-key secondary character. The pair benefits, no doubt, from lowered expectations; buzz for the next film by the guys who brought you Paranormal Activity 4 has been oddly muted so far. But for all the patently corny bits and some 17 attempts at an ending, Power still somehow makes it easy to suspend your disbelief and your imaginary degree in biochemistry, and just let it ride. B+