New from Jeff York on The Establishing Shot: ACTING GRAVITAS HELPS GROUND THE OVER-THE-TOP “PROJECT POWER”

Tension gives films crackle. It’s palpable when there is great conflict in a story, and characters are angrily at odds with another. Some films, like the new Netflix adventure PROJECT POWER, also come fraught with tension in the juxtaposition of styles onscreen. While the story, cinematography, and editing go for broke with a hellzapoppin’ tone, the acting from its three leads remains grounded throughout. The result is a hyper, volatile film given some surprising nuance and gravitas by the serious-minded turns of stars Jamie Foxx, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and Dominique Fishback.

The story starts by introducing a drug salesman named Biggie (Rodrigo Santoro) hawking a new street drug called Power to a gaggle of gangstas. The pills look like miniature snow globes with combustible energy cascading about in each of them. Biggie brags of the pills’ promise of otherworldly powers, but the script by Mattson Tomlin cleverly holds back on the details. Tomlin wants the super-drug to remain a mystery, one with unforeseen consequences. As more and more is revealed, the Power pills do indeed allow the user to transcend their human world in an X-Men mutant sort of way. However, the effects last only five minutes and they come with some pretty nasty side effects. (No spoilers here, you’ll have to see for yourself.)

Art, played by Foxx, is a former soldier with a secret reason for wanting to intercept the shipments of the drug. Another interloper is Frank, played by Gordon-Levitt, a tough detective also wanting to disrupt the traffic and save his city of New Orleans from all kinds of drug-related death and destruction. Meanwhile, teenager Robin (Fishback) sees the drugs as a means to an end. By selling the addictive drugs at her school, she can raise enough money to enable her diabetic mother Irene (Andrene Ward-Hammond) to get the healthcare she desperately needs.

Each of the three gets entangled with various users of the pills and in doing so, the action set-pieces start ping-ponging all over the screen. Art has a nasty encounter with an addict whose rage is given red by turning into a human torch. Frank tries to settle a bank robbery/hostage situation only to find himself chasing down a perp on Power who can blend into his surroundings like a chameleon. And poor Robin, she has run-ins with her bullying teacher at school and some thugs after her supply in a grocery store too.

Directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman shoot it all with a maximum snap, crackle, and pop. Angles are cocked, cutting is frenzied, and the music is cranked up to an 11. At times, the film resembles those Jason Statham CRANK movies from 2006 and 2009, a virtual thunderstorm of kinetic craziness, but Foxx, Gordon-Levitt, and Fishback ground it all, never quite winking at the audience regarding the lunacy swirling around them.

Of course, the three characters’ stories will collide in the third act when they join forces to bring down Biggie and the drug lords behind him. It becomes more predictable there, but Tomlin’s script zigs as much as it can throughout. Biggie’s big boss isn’t some Scarface-esque sociopath, but rather, a plain-speaking businesswoman (Amy Landecker). Even with all the chaos going on, the three leads are given ample opportunity to play off each other. And supporting players make an impact too, with Courtney B. Vance’s wary police captain and Tait Fletcher’s drug cartel fixer making strong impressions in limited screen time.

At times, the films’ special effects look silly, and the editing cuts around the fact that the budget for PROJECT POWER is a fraction of what a Marvel production costs. Still, the film moves, has fun, gets serious at the right moments, and plays as kinetically as Netflix’s 6 UNDERGROUND hit did on Netflix this past winter. It’s a summer popcorn movie, released with just a few weeks of summer left, likely to be devoured by a quarantined public aching to escape.

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