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Movie review: A good time with good guys, bad guys, and super powers in the streets of New Orleans

Ed Symkus
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You don’t have to wait very long for things to get cooking in this engaging thriller about an illicit drug that can bring out the innate super power in each of us ... and how easy it would be to use that drug or those powers for all the wrong purposes.

It starts with a late-night business meeting in New Orleans, presided over by a slick fellow talking to a group of young “entrepreneurs” who will distribute a new product, which he calls Power. Then he holds up a small glowing vial.

Six weeks later, it’s being distributed on dark streets, and it’s a hit, an expensive one: A $500 pill will unleash the power within you for five minutes. Every pill is the same, but everyone’s power is different, and you won’t know what it is till you pop that pill. You could become really fast or really strong. You could become invisible. You could - watch out! - burst into flames.

An undercover cop named Frank (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is on the streets, trying to halt sales of the drug. A young girl named Robin (Dominique Fishback) is pushing it to make some cash, but also has a working relationship with Frank. A mysterious fellow who calls himself The Major (Jamie Foxx) is on a mission to find the source of the drug, but doesn’t let on why.

It takes a while, but with a set-up like that in the script, it’s not going to surprise anybody that these three folks are somehow going to come together. Frank will do so with a streak of severity as well as a twinkle in his eye. The Major will go about it with an air of grim determination. Robin may appear to be in over her head, but there’s every reason to believe that she’ll work things out. There will be others around this trio of protagonists, some of them helping, most of them getting in the way.

Case in point is when the film cuts to an armed robbery in progress, where Frank shows up to discover that there are already plenty of cops there, but they’ve been ordered to stand down. So, he takes things into his own hands, by swallowing one of those pills.

The first question viewers will have: What’s Frank’s special power? A more important one: What’s the power of the criminal he’s going after, who has also downed a pill? Neither will be revealed here, but the answers result in some crazy visual moments on the screen.

Then, after five minutes, everyone returns to normal. But all the while, the plot is thickening. The Major believes he’s closing in on a source. Frank’s police captain boss (Courtney B. Vance) demands Frank’s gun and badge when he finds that Frank has been using the pills on duty - even though it helped him get his man. Nameless men in dark suits are responsible for keeping cops away from criminals. Robin is proving to be more perceptive to what’s happening around her than anyone gave her credit for.

OK, so, the good guys are being hindered by the men in suits, the bad guys are building up forces of more bad guys - one of whom is “connected to every cartel in South America” - and

word has gone out that whoever controls this drug can topple governments.

That makes up part of the film’s serious side. But what makes it a lot of fun is that it features some really appealing characters. Frank is using whatever methods are necessary to do his job (and his power is certainly an interesting one); in due time the Major makes it clear that his desperation to get to the center of things is for a very good reason; Robin is a young girl who’s growing up very quickly, and is enjoying the process. There’s also a plentiful supply of humor, some of it used to buffer the mystery of those men in suits. And screenwriter Mattson Tomlin also wisely provides moments where characters get to just talk with each other about life’s challenges.

On top of all of that, along with the requisite explosive climax, there are even a couple of funny verbal nods to Clint Eastwood, courtesy of Gordon-Levitt. Now, that’s a bonus!

“Project Power” premieres on Netflix on Aug. 14.

Ed Symkus can be reached at esymkus@rcn.com.

“Project Power”

Written by Mattson Tomlin; directed by Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman

With Jamie Foxx, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Dominique Fishback

Rated R