The Power of Bathos
Just the other week I was observing with a degree of sadness that Joseph Gordon-Levitt seemed to have rather dropped off the radar in recent years: this was, of course, the cue for him to reappear in what I suppose must qualify as a fairly high-profile movie (it’s a streamer, but conventional releases still seem to be on pause while the accountants see how well Tenet and The New Mutants do in the new climate). It seems, by the way, that Gordon-Levitt took a couple of years off to concentrate on raising his family – which is highly laudable, of course, even if the fact he has this option just drives home how extravagant the salaries of Hollywood performers often are. There’s a trade-off, he suggests, saying that the professional options open to him have narrowed compared to what they were before his break.
I wonder if this could be construed as why an actor sometimes to be found in rather prestigious studio productions now finds himself in an original superhero movie made by Netflix? Perhaps I am letting my prejudices show, for I am still wary of anything which seems to undermine the theatrical experience in the way that Netflix’s business model does, while it’s hard to think of an own-brand superhero movie (by which I mean, not based on a pre-existing comic book character) with any real merit. (I suppose some people would argue for Darkman.)
The movie in question is Project Power, directed by Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman. The setting is the city of New Orleans, still depicting as struggling many years after the impact of Hurricane Katrina. But now the citizens of the Big Easy have something new making their lives more difficult: a designer drug is being sold on the streets. Known as ‘Power’, the one and only effect of it is to give the taker superpowers. There are some arbitrary genre movie rules attached to this, of course: the powers only last for exactly five minutes, and it’s not like you get a random new power every time – it’s more as if the drug activates whatever potential you have.
So far, so preposterous but at the same time fairly generative as far as story ideas go – but, possibly to try and make it all sound a bit more credible, the writer (Mattson Tomlin) attempts to put some kind of quasi-scientific gloss on this by indicating the drug gives people powers derived from the natural abilities of various animals. Nothing too objectionable about this, I suppose, but the movie rather blows a hole in its own credibility by introducing a character whose power, when activated, is so terrifyingly destructive even he is frightened of it. And what animal has he apparently gained this from? A shrimp. You can’t beat a bit of bathos.
Anyway, the actual plot concerns a trio of characters: maverick cop Frank (Gordon-Levitt), who has taken to using Power in order to allow him to stand a chance against criminals who are on the drug; teenage drug-dealer and aspiring rapper Robin (Dominique Fishback), who is his supplier; and the Major (Jamie Foxx), an ex-military drifter who has blown into town and is determined to find the source of the drug for reasons of his own. Can they sort out their various differences and work together to get the drug off the streets?
It’s almost inherent in the superhero genre that the premise of a story is going to be fairly unlikely, and once you factor this in the premise of Project Power does not look entirely un-promising. There is the potential here for all the requisite action and crash-bang-wallopery, but in a slightly more gritty context than usual – it’s clear from the script that the writer intended to make points about the various injustices of US society and engage in other bits of social commentary too.
Well, I suppose in the end the movie’s higher aspirations are all still present, but you have to look quite hard for them as they sort of vanish into the background. I do wonder if I am unfairly prejudiced against some of these streaming movies – it’s possible that if I’d seen a movie like Project Power on the big screen, I might have been more impressed by the fact it is trying to be a bit more intelligent and thoughtful and engage with social issues as well as being a special-effects action movie. The film’s advantage in that setting would have been the faculty-numbing effect of a giant screen and huge sound system (this is all part and parcel of the theatrical experience I mentioned earlier). Watching it on a small-ish TV or laptop, it just doesn’t have the effect the makers are presumably hoping for.
In the end you are left with a movie built around lavish special effects action sequences, and while they look pretty good they are an essentially superficial pleasure. The very nature of these set-pieces and the way they are presented is really at odds with all the other things the script is trying to do: if you’re trying to make a film which has serious points about America’s drugs problem and its underprivileged citizens, you surely want to make something which is fairly gritty and naturalistic, not just another slick and glossy Marvel-style entertainment. That really would have been something new and interesting in this genre. As it is, the film’s noble intentions just seem like a fig-leaf to justify CGI overload and a lurid, colour-drenched visual style.
I could gripe about a few other things – the film can’t seem to resist beating the viewer over the head with pop-culture references, for example – but that is its main problem. That said, as this kind of film goes, I’ve seen much worse, and it has some visually impressive fights and chases (I should mention there are some rather grisly moments along the way). The presence of charismatic leads like Foxx and Gordon-Levitt is also, obviously, a plus, while everyone seems to agree that this film features a potentially career-launching turn from Dominique Fishback – I can’t argue with this, though I wonder if that career will be as an actress or a rapper (let’s face it, in today’s media landscape, probably both). In the end, though, this feels like another piece of slickly assembled and packaged Netflix product rather than anything genuinely interesting or exciting.