It’s been a while since I’ve felt as cheated by a movie as I did by Project Power when, immediately after unleashing superpower-enabling drugs on New Orleans, it pulled a “Six Weeks Later.” The substance, which comes in a twist-activated capsule containing what looks like a glowing nebula, temporarily unlocks a special ability in everyone who takes it and doesn’t immediately blow up (an admittedly discouraging side effect that plagues a small percentage of users). It’s off-brand X-Men with a time limit, but there’s also a chaotically democratic quality to the premise that sets it apart. For the price of a pill, anyone can have five minutes of access to whatever their particular talent turns out to be — say, exaggerated strength, or camouflaging skin, or the ability to project bone shards through one’s flesh to use as weapons. The drug’s essentially being product-tested on the poor, but that also means that’s who has access to it, an upending of power dynamics that means dozens of regular people get bursts of access to extraordinary capabilities. And what does the movie do? It consigns this period to a 911 call map, and then rushes instead to tell another tale of characters defeating baddies and saving the day.
Project Power, which was written by Mattson Tomlin and directed by Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman (of the Catfish doc, and more recently, Nerve), stakes out a spot on the gritty outskirts of the superhero genre, with blood and profanity and a character played by Machine Gun Kelly. General lameness of the powers aside, there’s a streak of body horror to how they work, what with the transformations leaving visible scars on some users, and the woman with a cold-generating ability who breaks off a finger after her hand freezes to the ground. But there’s nothing edgy about the story it tells, which hurtles past so many more fertile possibilities to focus on a detective named Frank (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a plucky teenager named Robin (Dominique Fishback), and a ex-military man with a secret named Art (Jamie Foxx). They eventually come together to rescue the city, from itself as much as from the nefarious corporation that turns out to be behind the product. The drug, as its primary salesman Biggie (Rodrigo Santoro) pitches it, “will topple governments” — but in the film, its potential only seems to fuel a crime wave that has at least one policeman taking the pills himself to keep up.
That would be Frank, whose power is bulletproof skin and whose heart is gold, which we know because he gifts his supplier, Robin, with a bike from the impound lot. Robin’s heart is similarly gilded — she’s only slinging pills to pay for her diabetic mother’s surgery. This fails to garner her any sympathy from Art when he rolls into town trying to find the source of the drugs, though he too turns out to have a personal motivation. Of the actors playing these bluntly written characters, each with a moral checkmark, only Fishback (coming off a run on The Deuce) manages to do more than trudge through the 111-minute runtime. She allows Robin a pragmatic skepticism in the face of rote promises about the rewards of keeping her head down and staying in school. But what’s appealing about Robin is not the redemptive choices that she inevitably gets pulled toward — it’s her disheartened normalcy. She’s just a girl who’s trying to get by, and who’s stumbled on a way to do it by way of hawking a mysterious substance that allows people to access their animal DNA or whatever. It’d be infinitely more interesting to explore Robin’s relationship with her dirtbag cousin Newt (Kelly), a full-time dealer who develops the ability to thermoregulate into a ball of fire and whose preferred meeting place is Church’s Chicken.
But Newt burns out after an uninspired encounter in a terrific location — a battered apartment complex in Woodmere where the characters are able to jump through holes in the floors and walls. We’re left instead with cops and soldiers who serve as real and surrogate dads, all intent on setting the world aright as though that were a straightforward task. The trouble with trying to push at the boundaries of the superhero genre isn’t that we’re out of material, it’s that imaginations are so limited that a film that starts with a twist on a familiar premise nevertheless loops around to a standard showdown involving an incoherent blur of computer generated effects. Project Power only has one memorable action sequence, involving a fight happening through the glass of a tank, but it grinds dutifully through plenty of other set-pieces anyway. It shears superheroics away from operatic origin stories and dichotomies of good and evil, then drifts back toward those ideas as though lost without them. It’s a film that’s more frustrating for the promising aspects it sets to the side — like the textures of the city in which it takes place, or the details of the life its youngest character is leading. Or, for that matter, all the fun, dumb, dangerous, inspired things that could have happened in those first six weeks, had the movie not cut away.