In the hurtling, slapdash fanciful action thriller “Project Power,” people get high by swallowing a tablet that looks like a cross between an old Contact cold-relief capsule and a tiny light bulb. The bottom half of the pill is dark and ridged, the top half is a bright orange Tesla energy field. The drug affects different takers in different ways — or maybe it just depends on which piece of visual-effects flimflam the filmmakers feel like unleashing at any given moment.
Early on, a drug taker catches fire, like Johnny Storm of the Fantastic Four, only in this case he’s really on fire, his body turned into a walking char, as if he were one of the X-Men immolating himself. (At the climax, he erupts like John Cassavetes at the end of “The Fury.”) Another dude’s body changes color and turns translucent as he runs really, really fast (45 miles per hour according to a breathless newspaper headline — which by my estimate sort of makes him the $2 Million Man). A woman’s limbs turn to ice, like something out of “Frozen” (a joke the movie makes), and a man bulges out like the Hulk; characters also acquire the ability to repel bullets. But the effects of the drug only last for five minutes, and though it’s said to confer extraordinary “power” (a word the movie uses about 10,000 times, as if that made it more powerful), getting high in this way doesn’t look all that much fun.
“Project Power” feels like part of a new trend in Netflix movies, or maybe a new genre: a film that isn’t a traditional superhero movie — it’s more of a jacked-up street thriller — but is full of touches that will remind you of superhero movies, so at certain points it kind of counts. (Since you’re sitting at home, scarfing entertainment on the small screen, there’s an impulse to say, “Check this out! It’s good enough!”) The Netflix smash “The Old Guard” really was a superhero movie. In “Project Power,” though, we’re not asked to root for these hungry-for-omnipotence souls who are popping capsules; they’re random human guinea pigs. We’re rooting for Art, a.k.a. the Major (Jamie Foxx), a former military officer who’s on an underworld collision course to learn who’s distributing the drug, so that he can squelch it at its source. He teams up with Robin (Dominique Fishback), a high-school hellion who’s been selling the drug on the side, and they become uneasy allies in a race to see what “power” really means.
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“Project Power” has propulsion, little detonations of visual magic, the resonant setting of a still desperate New Orleans, and a better cast than a movie like this one tends to have. Yet watching it, you may find yourself aware of how patched together the whole thing is. The film’s directors, Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman (who made the 2011 embellished documentary “Catfish” and then went on to direct two “Paranormal Activity” sequels), want to give you a buzz. Each time the drug gets popped, there are montages of dilating eyeballs and triggered synapses that crudely mimic the ones in “Requiem for a Dream,” and the whole this drug will make you amazing! concept feels like a lift from “Limitless,” the terrific 2011 dramatic thriller that established Bradley Cooper as an actor who could do more than strut through a “Hangover” movie. “Limitless” was about a drug that was pure brain candy — one that let you tap the fabled other 80 percent of your brain, and turned Cooper’s character into a glittery-eyed schmoozer genius — and the antic fun of it was that the audience shared in the high.
In “Project Power,” we’re outside the drug experience, but the real clue to this downbeat flashy adventure’s rather slovenly soul is that it turns into a thriller about a conspiracy that’s grandiose yet naggingly abstract. The drug is part of a master plan to control people: to take away their power by giving them a false sense of power. That sounds like a tasty theme, but the script, by Mattson Tomlin, is a threadbare piece of work that makes you long for the sinister specificity and rooted danger of a good drug drama. “Project Power” is basically an overblown sketchbook of a movie with showcase effects.
And yet…every watchable but ultimately just okay Netflix potboiler should have an actor as inspired as Jamie Foxx at its center. Here’s a serious question: Has Foxx ever phoned it in? (I’d say no.) In “Project Power,” he’s playing a lost soldier who has personal reasons for his crusade, and Foxx dramatizes that commitment with a cool, wounded, reflective, moment-to-moment intensity that never wavers. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, as a cop who feels it’s his mandate to take the drug, since all the foes he’s fighting are on it, starts off by doing a bizarrely overstated robot macho-man thing, as if this were his impersonation of a bad Keanu Reeves performance. But he settles into a groove and becomes a stalwart presence. And Dominique Fishback, so superb in “The Hate U Give,” proves again that she has the right stuff. Her Robin presents an authentic weave of trauma and attitude, and she’s a free-style rapper — which Fishback nails, delivering her rhymes (which were written by Chika) with a do-or-die smolder.
The diversity of casting, which has become a Netflix hallmark, lends the film’s conspiracy — at least, in theory — a fresh dimension of social fervor, calling up overtones of the 1932 Tuskegee Experiment, and the widespread perception that the drugs that poured into America’s inner cities in the late ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s did so with a tacit degree of government approval. Yet that doesn’t absolve the movie of the need to fill in the logistics of the conspiracy in a compelling way. Like other recent Netflix action films (“Extraction” and, yes, “The Old Guard”), “Project Power” gives you the sensation that it’s drawing on so many decades’ worth of pulp clichés that the movie can scarcely bother to pretend it’s anything but a remix.