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Superhero Surprise

Project Power



PROJECT POWER. A friend, whose name shall remain unsaid but which once appeared on this very masthead, wondered not long ago, whither Jamie Foxx. I bristled a bit at the question, as Foxx's contribution to Michael Mann's Miami Vice (2006), a seminal if divisive document of the early '00s and one of my favorite movies of all time, basically renders his career immortal and immutable. From a less biased perspective, though, it's not unreasonable to ask. Those of a certain age probably knew him first for In Living Color, wherein his timing, charisma and gameness made it no real surprise when he transitioned to movie acting. Then he made three movies with Mann (Ali, 2001, and Collateral, 2004, before Miami Vice), winning a Best Actor Oscar for Ray (2004) in the midst of that run. It was indisputable that he had arrived on the A-list. Bankable, famous, prestigious and versatile, it seemed he could write his own ticket. Which may be exactly what he's been doing in the meantime: He's continued to dabble in television, collaborated on a fair amount of music and acted in a variety of high-profile movies.

As a movie actor, though, he hasn't maintained the prominent position in the ongoing conversation we might have expected. His role in Django Unchained (2012) is undeniably that of a movie star but in the last 15 years (or so) he has been a leading man, a character actor, comic relief, the American president and occasional other villains. He's been eminently watchable all along, despite the mixed popular and critical reception of those projects. And now, after a heartbreaking, low-key performance in Destin Daniel Cretton's Just Mercy (2019), Foxx is back to blockbusters in the era of their undoing.

A disclaimer: Like everyone else, the pandemic, coupled with the authoritarian coup threatening democracy, has made me a little insane. It's difficult to track its effects, and the symptoms sometimes seem disassociated from the cause. And so it is impossible that my reaction to the books, music and movies I'm taking in has not been colored, even imperceptively, by the steady erosion of my mental and emotional state. Maybe it has made me more accepting, thankful as I am for distractions and escapism, but also for reflections and meditations on the good and brave things of which people are capable. Whatever it is, I really like Project Power; it seems like I shouldn't but I do.

In a perhaps parallel-universe present-day New Orleans, an exciting new drug is freely given to street dealers for broad distribution. The gleaming pills, we learn, will unlock users' innate super-power but only for five minutes at a time. As you might expect, the powers are a mixed bag — could be super-strength, could result in self-immolation. An NOPD detective (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) relies on the occasional pill and his friendship with a struggling would-be rapper/occasional dealer named Robin (Dominique Fishback) to help him fight the good fight. Meanwhile, a former Army Ranger called the Major (Foxx) arrives in the city, hunting the supplier of the drug and searching desperately for his daughter. Superhero action ensues.

This movie feels like a statement by Netflix, the first true blockbuster-type movie it's brought to the table. It's certainly possible the absence of the predominant tentpoles and the theatrical experience has slowed or softened my critical response. And it may be "lucky" timing that the movie the studio had most groomed as a contender for theatrical release is now a streaming title. But there is something to Project Power, that nearly impossible combination of cast and story and style that makes a movie memorable, that leaves the audience satisfied, even wanting more, rather than lamenting what might have been. And as much as I've enjoyed what Netflix has offered us, lo these horrendous months, this is the first one that hits all the marks. Even Extraction, which I very much enjoyed, felt like a stunt show writ large. It didn't have the cohesiveness that would let it stand up next to a major weekend release. Somehow, almost inexplicably, Project Power does.

This is due in no small part to Foxx's unassuming ability to own the frame, his elegantly contained explosive physicality and ability to be emotionally vulnerable. Gordon-Levitt, about whom my admiration has been broadcast, makes nothing but smart choices, playing a dynamic but appropriately reserved supporting role. And Fishback, with rhymes written for her by Chika, also owns every frame in which she appears.

The cast, though formidable in its own right, could get lost in a movie like this, were it not for a sure-footed script and direction. And they have it in an original screenplay by Mattson Tomlin and shockingly good-looking, well-edited movie-making by Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, whose previous work I now realize I may have unfairly neglected. R. 113M. NETFLIX.

John J. Bennett (he/him) is a movie nerd who loves a good car chase.

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