By Dwight Brown
NNPA News Wire Film Critic
Move over Molly. You’ve got competition! Folks in New Orleans are downing potent capsules dubbed Power that can give them superpowers. What’s the catch? The energy rush only lasts for minutes and it’s very unpredictable.
Who in the world could think up such a novel premise? Point your finger at screenwriter Mattson Tomlin (upcoming The Batman). Hale or hate him for giving a fresh twist to the conventional action/crime/sci-fi genre. He’s the one who found a way to wrap a plotline around a 13-year-old drug dealer and add in a socially conscious subplot about citizens being treated like lab rats. After you’ve called Child Protective Services, sit down and indulge. Click on your Netflix account, scroll down the menu, then grab some Cheetos and a beer because for 1h 51m you’re going on a long-winded thrill ride.
Power pills are pretty tempting. Some who swallow the glowing buds gain super strength, others become fireballs and some even become invisible. Should they just say “No” to the drug? That’s not the way the drug czar Biggie (Rodrigo Santoro, Westworld) sees it. He’s the leader who sends his crew out to do business. Something like a gangbanger telling his dealers to fan out and not come back without some Benjamins.
Robin (Dominique Fishback, The Hate U Give), a tween, is desperate for money for her mom Irene (Andrene Ward-Hammond, Just Mercy) and willing to sell the stuff to whomever she can. Frank (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, The Dark Knight Rises), a cop, is pissed the new drug is consuming NOLA. And then there’s Art (Jamie Foxx, Ray), an ex-soldier, who is deep in the mix, hunting down the ringleader and government operatives for his own reasons.
Filmmakers Ariel “Rel” Schulman and Henry Joost were co-directors on the documentary Catfish (which coined the social media term “catfish”) and the horror feature film Paranormal Activity 3. Some would say their style is a bit modern and quirky. And that’s precisely what you need to turn a well-worn genre film on its head. In some ways they succeed. In some ways they don’t.
Though designed to be off the beaten path, once the premise is established, the storyline starts and the initial characters are exposed, the film becomes fairly ho hum. That is until Gordon-Levitt shows up in the guise of Frank, a flatfoot who plays by his own rules. How out there is he? Well, quiet as it’s kept, he’s been known to dabble in the forbidden drug himself. There is something very street and hip about that actor that has Frank interacting with Robin, Irene and Art and the bad guys in a very cool lucid way. Like Justin Timberlake hanging with Timbaland or Jay-Z. He kicks the movie into another gear.
With a plot that is denser than it needs to be, more characters than necessary, and enough backstories to fill an Al-Anon meeting, it’s no wonder the pacing drags (editor Jeff McEvoy, The Lincoln Lawyer). That’s especially noticeable the first time Art appears on screen and those scenes are mired in exposition. Momentum wavers and audiences might become a little impatient. Simpler would have been so much better. It would have allowed much more time for the depravity one would hope and wish for in a film of this nature. Something along the lines of Deadpool—the first one, not the second one.
Schulman and Joost do have an eccentric, brash style that screams “I’m cool.” But, they come up short in any scene that requires real drama. And surprisingly, they could have put more polish on their action scenes. When Art battles Robin’s friend Newt (Colson Baker), the sequence is just fiery enough. Otherwise the lack of mindboggling choreography, stunning special effects and inventiveness in fight scenes is a disappointment. Again, think back to Deadpool. If Shulman and Joost want to be the next superstar Gen Z “it” filmmaking team they need to follow the paths blazed by the Safdie brothers (Uncut Gems) or the duo Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah (Bad Boys for Life).
As a kid who is torn between the love of her needy mother and the entrepreneurship it takes to be a successful underage drug dealer, Dominique Fishback makes you like her. Courtney B. Vance as Captain Crane, the superior who bullies officer Frank, is just dubious enough to throw you off his trail. Crane to Frank: “Did you take a pill today?” Frank: “Yes.” Crane: “Gun and badge on table.”
The cruelest of them all is Biggie the dealer, whose nefarious plans don’t include any pity for people who die popping his pills like cough drops. Rodrigo Santoro brings the naughty to this character pretty well. Foxx’s role doesn’t give him a lot to do that is distinctive. He’s good. But as an Oscar winner, he should steal the movie. Instead it’s as if he has ceded his ground to Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s layered and intense performance that far outshines the material.
Michael Simmonds (Halloween) is fairly vigilant with his cinematography and makes the streets of New Orleans pretty inviting. There is a hipness to the clothes (Sharen Davis, Dreamgirls) that adds to the likable weirdness of the cast. As the film careens to its finale, loud string music blares. It’s the generic kind that barges in at the end of many genre films hoping to enhance the climax. It’s a mistake. A strong rap song or hip-hop beat would have jacked up this pivotal moment.
The film’s playlist includes a bit of Curtis Mayfield. Also, a classroom scene when Robin’s teacher calls her out features her rapping to the class and putting the haughty professor in his place. This spoken word is clever and Fishback exploits a moment that is short and sweet. In a rap battle later on with Foxx, the rhymes are weak, that fierce persona is shaky and the sequence goes on far too long. Again, another example of iffy choices in an uneven movie.
Even with the imperfections, Project Power is easy to sit through. Once you sit down to watch it, you will likely remain glued to your seat until that last pill is popped.