Project Power (2020)

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“Project Power” is the kind of action/sci-fi bone-cruncher where the cast is better than the material, the characters are more interesting than the premise, and the dialogue chugs along in the middle. It’s on Netflix and is worth a few hours if you’re in a B-movie state of mind.

The “Power” of the title is a new drug hitting the streets of New Orleans. It’s a capsule that gives the user a single superpower for five minutes, and the superpower depends on your specific genetic make-up. Maybe you’ll be able to fly. Maybe your head will just explode. It’s not exactly FDA-approved.

There’s a maverick cop – isn’t there always? – who occasionally pops Power for the five minutes of bulletproof it gives him. His name is Frank and he’s played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt with the grim humor of a movie star making bank for his collaborative-media website (hitrecord.com, in case you’ve never checked it out). Frank’s dealer is Robin (Dominique Fishback), a world-weary high school girl who’s raising money for her mother’s surgery, and the two have a combative but respectful relationship that’s upended with the appearance of Art (Jamie Foxx), a mystery man violently working his way up the Power chain of supply-and-demand.

That’s two name performers ably keeping their heads above this bathwater, and Fishback makes it three; a young Black actress holding down her corner of a macho genre movie, she brings a refreshing wit and nerve to “Project Power.” Foxx’s character has a semi-tragic backstory entwined with the development of the drug, which of course has a nefarious conspiracy behind it aiming at world conquest – doesn’t it always? Even here, there are tweaks to the formula: The mad scientist running the whole shebang is played by Amy Landecker, best known as the oldest of the neurotic siblings on TV’s “Transparent.”

The directors, too, have been interesting places: Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman created “Catfish” (both movie and TV series) before veering off into high-concept potboilers like “Nerve” and “Viral” (both 2016). They’re smart boys at play in the fields of the dumb, the latter supplied by Mattson Tomlin’s chock-a-block script. Waves of sneering baddies with automatic weapons and sinister facial hair, hard-bitten dialogue that’s been chewed once too often, plot turns that require a good deal of patience from the viewer (the high schooler has the skill to sew up bullet wounds; who knew?) – it’s all here and handled with judicious skill by the directors and their crew.

The most intriguing aspect of “Power” are those drug-induced Superpowers, which – spoiler alert – are harvested from the DNA of various animals. One character can blend into backgrounds like a chameleon. Another is said to be able to leap off tall buildings like a flying squirrel. You’ll have to see the movie to find out what a pistol shrimp can do. “Project Power” needs more of these, and more of a sense of humor as well. In fact, there’s a pretty good comedy in here fighting tooth and talon to get out from under all the explosions. Maybe this team can try again, because it’s not like we’re going anywhere.