The bone-headed, faux-street smart posturing of David Ayer’s Bright is just one of the elements thrown into the overcooked stew that is Netflix’s Project Power, a superhero movie that’s also an anti-drug fable and a father-daughter story mixed with a little bit of insensitively deployed commentary on the American government’s history of medical experimentation on Black people. You’ve got your X-Men references, your Captain America riffs, your Midnight Special parallels, and elements that are similar to last year’s as-yet-unreleased festival title Synchronic. And the film does it all while pummeling the viewer with an overwhelming blend of hip-hop musical cues, graffiti-covered walls, and in-your-face camerawork in an attempt to convince viewers that this is a movie that hums with the energy of the streets. (Note to filmmakers: The harder you try at this, the less you succeed.)
Regardless of whatever the hell is going on with Project Power at any particular moment, Jamie Foxx stars as Art, an ex-soldier subjected to government experimentation during his time in the service. Art is on a mission to rescue his daughter Tracy (Kyanna Simone Simpson) from a top-secret facility floating on the Mississippi River, where evil doctors are using her inherited superpowers to do... something related to a new drug that’s just hit the streets of New Orleans. The drug, a glowing capsule which you have to activate by twisting it between your teeth, gives anyone who takes it superpowers, but only for five minutes. The thing is, you don’t know what your particular superpower will be until you take the pill. It could be fire, it could be ice, it could be super-strength or super-speed or the ability to slow down time a lá Neo in The Matrix. There’s also a not-insignificant chance that you’ll explode seconds after taking it, which leads to one snort-worthy moment.
The superpower roulette is also a convenient metaphor for the character arc of cynical high schooler Robin (Dominique Fishback), an aspiring rapper who’s trying to figure out her place in the world. Robin sells the super-drug to raise money for her mom’s medical bills, an activity that’s led to her awkward, mentor-ish relationship with Frank (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a police detective hooked on the drug. Frank tells himself that it’s a “fighting fire with fire” sort of thing. (It’s really more like “fighting fire with bulletproof skin,” but whatever.) Frank tries to give Robin life advice, but considering he’s also buying drugs from a teenage girl, she receives his wisdom with warranted skepticism. He is useful to have around, though, when Art comes crashing into town with a vendetta, kidnapping Robin and forcing her to take him to the source of the drug.
The violence with which Art initially interrogates Robin is unsettling, but the remainder of Project Power fails to maintain even a notable level of sadism. The color scheme is bold and the soundtrack loud, but the plot is loose and confused—which is fine, because it’s secondary to the lighting and camerawork, anyway. The CGI is unremarkable, and the screenplay full of dopey one-liners about “good guys” and “bad guys” and “shov[ing]” things “up your motherfucking [EXPLOSION].” One welcome element in all this hyper-stylization is in the film’s casting, however, which includes young women with body types and skin tones that are underrepresented in media in general. And when Robin and Tracy finally meet towards the end of the film, it’s refreshing to see two Black girls teaming up to save the day. Foxx and Fishback additionally prove themselves true professionals with their committed performances, which made their scenes together, if not touching, at least diverting.
They don’t quite save the movie, however. Directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman got their start with the documentary Catfish back in 2010, and have since moved into genre filmmaking (Paranormal Activity 4, Viral) with mediocre results. Project Power is similarly undistinguished, a mishmash of familiar tropes presented with a lot of panache but not a lot of imagination. If nothing else, it’s another step on the ladder for the talented Fishback, who also has a role in the upcoming Fred Hampton movie Judas And The Black Messiah. You might as well spend a couple hours with this film on in the background, but don’t expect much about it to stick with you—except for the jaw-dropping Henrietta Lacks monologue. You may need to pop a pill to forget that.