‘Project Power’ review: Ye olde bangs, scares and clichés
By Manohla Dargis
Midway through “Project Power,” a shiny, noisy, more-or-less tolerable blowout from Netflix, the rugged-yet-caring hero gives the tough-yet-sensitive youngster a quick talking to. Basically he speaks to this young grasshopper’s potential, a moment that made me wonder if there were any Scientologists on board, before dropping some wisdom on her. If you’ve seen a lot of action movies, you know what’s next: confusion, scares, brinkmanship, big and bigger bangs — anything new just won’t do.
Some moviemakers (not many!) upend genre expectations; others just toy with them on the way to an unsurprising finish: Bad guys die, good guys win, and that’s the way many viewers like it, to judge from all the superhero hits. The crew behind “Project Power” runs at those expectations with wide-open arms. They know that the way to mainstream hearts and wallets is not by upsetting viewers (oh, hi, Rian Johnson), but by soothing them with the same candy they’ve grown to love. Sugar highs can be fun.
Here, the tasty emptiness begins with the story, which involves a potentially cool, possibly deadly drug that’s being poured onto the market. It’s wreaking havoc on a shadowy but vibrantly colorful New Orleans, where the caring-yet-grimacing Art (Jamie Foxx) has come searching for a missing girl. As usual with movies of this sort there is a lot of exposition and many location changes and cartoonish types, including the skulking honcho (Rodrigo Santoro), a suave yet sleazy middle manager whose minions might as well have bull’s-eye tattoos alongside expiration dates.
The three main characters occupy separate storylines that periodically overlap before being braided together. Art meets his protégée, Robin (Dominique Fishback), who has a testy if friendly relationship with an ostensibly renegade cop, Frank (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). Robin seems to have her name so the filmmakers can joke about Batman. The character is such an amalgam of clichés — a drug-dealing, inventively rapping schoolgirl who cares for her sick mother — that she too seems like a joke. The only reason it doesn’t land is Fishback herself, a warm, expressive performer and one of the few bright spots in the HBO series “The Deuce.”
The humanity of the leads fills up the hollowness, putting flesh, or at least charm and attitude, on their archetypes. Foxx holds the center easily with the kind of imposing physicality and emotional stoicism that has long defined the male savior-redeemers played by John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, Denzel Washington and so on (and so on). Comfortably, and without any of the self-consciousness that can sometimes make him seem unproductively uptight, Foxx plays well off the other actors, especially Fishback. She in turn securely shares the screen with him and the amusing, showboating Gordon-Levitt, whose accent slips and slides among the punches and bullets.
There’s nothing else here that feels remotely personal, including the direction, by Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman. Working from Mattson Tomlin’s script, they hit every note squarely, tap, tap, boom. There are fireballs of death, positive paternalism, a stern police captain (Courtney B. Vance). Many characters die, sadistically or jokingly or with a carefully choreographed flourish. The cruelest death, though, is reserved for one of the most despised stereotypes in movies like this: the beautiful bimbo who seems to inspire a special kind of contempt in some filmmakers. That two of the most powerful baddies in the movie are women may be another joke, but I bet not.
The movie’s sexism is predictable and dull; how it navigates race is similarly obvious but a touch more interesting. At the center of “Project Power” is an evil government entity, which suggests someone here dipped into old conspiracy theories involving crack and the CIA. (There’s a nod to Henrietta Lacks, a Black woman whose tumor cells were used in research without her knowledge.) “The system,” Art warns Robin, “is designed to swallow you whole.” His solution is that Robin find what she does better than anyone and “rock that,” an appeal to her creativity that, depending on your view, is either nice or cynical given all the white guys behind these scenes.