Project Power review: Jamie Foxx's pill-popping thriller has surprising heart - CNET

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Swallowing a pill in Project Power yields unpredictable results.  

Netflix

You might think Netflix's Project Power sounds a little unoriginal. It's about a pill that gives people a random superpower for five minutes, like 2011's Limitless with some Marvel Cinematic Universe-style flavoring. But the adventure's central trio -- played by Jamie Foxx, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Dominique Fishback -- plus its clever use of its New Orleans setting, elevate the film above a familiar premise.

The 111-minute movie, directed by Nerve's Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, hits Netflix on Friday. 

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Fishback (whom you may have seen in HBO's The Deuce) plays Robin, a teenager whose life in the Big Easy is anything but as she's forced to deal Power pills to help with her uninsured mom's medical bills. To survive the mean streets, she's forged a quiet alliance with Gordon-Levitt's Frank, a cop who secretly pops Power pills to give him an edge against the city's criminals. 

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Jamie Foxx and Dominique Fishback play off each other nicely in this Netflix adventure.

Netflix

Robin's life suddenly gets a whole lot more dangerous when Foxx's Art, a former soldier who may or may not be searching for his lost daughter, starts taking down dealers in his hunt for the source of the Power pills.

Screenwriter Mattson Tomlin (who's co-writing The Batman) infuses each of the three with a humanizing sense of moral ambiguity as they try to survive in an unpredictable world where people can briefly wield X-Men-style superpowers, with Fishback's nuanced performance giving it a relatable emotional core. Foxx and Gordon-Levitt bring plenty of charisma, and each sparks off Fishback nicely.

Also working in Project Power's favor is its surprisingly restrained use of both superpowers and the New Orleans setting. You might be expecting a bunch of element-infused monsters reducing the French Quarter to rubble like more typical superhero fare. Instead, Joost and Schulman wisely sidestep the obvious, developing their characters and building anticipation for the action.

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Flame on! Some of the superpowered scenes turn up the heat.

Netflix

When someone takes a pill, it's like a fun little lottery as their powers manifest: They could get a dose of super-strength or just self-immolate on the spot. The movie smoothly weaves in exposition that ties the power to people's genetic structure, so they'll get the same ability each time.

The range of powers injects plenty of variety in the action sequences, but hyperactive editing often makes these scenes hard to follow. The most impressive transformation is also too dark to appreciate fully. Even if it's intentional, these visual choices leave you wondering if they're masking a switch to stunt doubles or weak CGI.

We also travel to a nice range of New Orleans locations -- from recognizable downtown to residential neighborhoods -- making the character's lives feel more grounded and believable. The lighting also takes on a satisfying neon-dripped quality as night falls and events get a little more fantastical. Joseph Trapanese's synth-heavy soundtrack adds to the intensity, punctuated by the occasional rap tune.

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Unfortunately, our villains are mostly pretty flat -- Transparent's Amy Landecker has plenty of presence as a Machiavellian scientist at the head of the shadowy group responsible for the pills, but feels underwritten. She's surrounded by a bunch of typical goons, some of whom Power up to stop the pesky heroes. At least Rodrigo Santoro (previously seen in Westworld and Lost) brings a bit of theatrical flair as a fabulously facial-haired middleman pushing the drug to dealers.

Project Power isn't a particularly deep movie and seems unlikely to set up a new cinematic universe, but it's got three heroes you'll root for, a fun pseudo-superhero mythology and a stylish setting. It'll certainly be an easy pill to swallow if you want to power up your Friday night.

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