Chances are you've played Super Mario Bros. at some point. There's that moment where you collide with a little star and then — blammo! — for a brief stretch of time you are invincible. You can zoom through the board, knocking everything out of your way, indestructible.
That notion of an extremely temporary superhuman ability is what drives the new Netflix original movie Project Power. It is also, unfortunately, the only remotely interesting thing in an otherwise rote, simple, and boring action picture.
A mysterious group of baddies with hard-to-pin-down accents deliver a cache of weird, glowing pills to some New Orleans drug dealers. They don't want anything in return, they just want the goods introduced to the market. Soon, strange stories appear about people outrunning cars or climbing walls. Next we meet a teen girl named Robin (Dominique Fishback, who is, in fact, 29, but this is the movies!) who sells the pills on the streets. After a run-in with some toughs, she is saved by one of her regular clients, a crooked cop named Frank (Joseph Gordon-Levitt).
But is Frank actually crooked? Maybe not. He just uses the drug to be the best cop he can be, which means swallowing a pill from time to time to become bulletproof, allowing him to, say, stop a bank from being robbed by a thief who just popped his own pill and became invisible. You see, different people react to the drug differently. (In fact you don't know what you'll get until you try it.) It only lasts for five minutes, but that's okay because everyone in this movie wears a digital watch.
Also, is Robin a bad person, pushing this stuff? Hardly. She's only living a life of metahuman crime to save enough money to pay for her mother's expensive surgery. (Yes, that old saw.) Also, though too shy to do it in front of people, she's a genius hip-hop artist. (And, in one of the more cringeworthy moments, we will learn that her words are her true power.)
Robin's connection is her sketchy cousin Newt (Machine Gun Kelly), who lives in a dilapidated but brightly spray-painted apartment complex. He's tracked down by The Major (Jamie Foxx) who is on the hunt for the main supplier, and he is ready to shoot first and ask questions second.
Does his proclivity to violence mean that The Major is evil? On the contrary, he's just a concerned father, and the villains behind this whole thing have messed with his family, in ways I won't spoil here, but are teased out later in the film.
I will spoil, however, that when you do find out, you really won't care. It's hard to connect to any of this nonsense, because the action scenes are so bland and the story feels so phoned-in. A whole new set of characters are introduced 10 minutes before the end of the movie, which leads me to believe there were other versions of the script with story arcs that ultimately got scrapped but didn't get entirely excised.
Anyway, Frank, Robin, and The Major join forces to find the evil people manufacturing the drug before they… take over Latin American countries, or something. It's all very vague. The last half hour is an endless battle at a shipyard, because it's always at a shipyard. At some point Jamie Foxx has a spiel about how hammer shrimp are the most powerful creature in nature. It's embarrassing.
Project Power was directed by Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost, the pair that brought Catfish into the world, and also the surprisingly entertaining Emma Roberts-Dave Franco film Nerve. That movie had a kind of gutsy, visual mayhem to it that is sorely lacking here. There are cuts to brightly colored swirls whenever the power-drug takes effect, but this feels like a band-aid to cover cheap-o looking special effects. The invisible bank robber looks terrible, as does the goon who pops a pill and hulks out for a moment. Other temporary powers include a guy whose bones become swords, and for a few minutes Machine Gun Kelly becomes the Human Torch.
Sticking around to see what the next cut-rate X-Men power will be is pretty much the only thing that might hold an audience's attention. Dominique Fishback is very charming, I'll give her that, and she does the best she can with this absurd character. (She's a 16-year-old who texts in class all day, but also knows how to stitch up a head wound and run a complicated ops station on a gigantic container ship.) As for the other two … what exactly happened here? Didn't Jamie Foxx win an Oscar? Wasn't Joseph Gordon-Levitt in Inception and Looper? Woof.
Project Power could have been a nutso Crank-like exercise in great kinetic action cinema, even with the cliché-hobbled screenplay. Based on Nerve, Schulman and Joost were a good bet to pull that off. But other than one shot (from the inside of a plexiglass tank, you'll know it when you see it) there's really nothing that crackles, and shoehorning Jamie Foxx's ridiculous emotional arc brings everything to a halt. Oh, if only there were a pill to take to speed this movie up to five minutes.
TV Guide Rating: 1.5/5
Project Power premieres Friday, Aug. 14 on Netflix.