Directed by Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, and written by Mattson Tomin, when a pill that gives its users unpredictable superpowers for five minutes hits the streets of New Orleans, a teenage dealer and a local cop must team with an ex-soldier to take down the group responsible for its creation. Starring: Jamie Foxx, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Dominique Fishback, Rodrigo Santoro, Courtney B. Vance, Amy Landecker, Machine Gun Kelly, Tait Fletcher, Allen Maldonado, Andrene Ward-Hammond and Kyanna Simone Simpson.
Netflix is always on the lookout for new, modern, flashy action flicks to stamp as their original content but when they’ve got truly refreshing films like Upgrade on their service, they’re setting themselves up to fail. There are aspects of the film that are new but so much of it is based on formats and styles that are extremely familiar, that there isn’t enough to keep it from feeling genuinely original, it follows too many existing patterns. The name of the game then becomes judging it based on simply its entertainment value, as even without a particularly new angle it can still be worth watching for its action, performances and effects.
The acting is certainly the strongest element that the film has to offer, particularly having Joseph Gordon Levitt back in front of the camera with a decent sized role, he has the typical cheeky charisma audiences have come to know, provides a small dose of comedy and has a great chemistry with Dominique Fishback. Fishback holds her own against seasoned pros Levitt and Foxx, her character has a great personality, she’s tough but vulnerable and very resourceful, this performance shows a great deal of potential and hopefully will be the start of larger and leading roles. Foxx gives us something that we’ve seen before from him, it doesn’t feel outside of his usual range but has a few touches here and there to add some emotion to an otherwise steely figure, however that unsurprising nature doesn’t make him any less enjoyable to watch. The three of them together make for a wonderful team and it’s a shame the story didn’t have something more interesting to offer them, other than designer drugs.
The story itself is simple, Art (Foxx) seeks his kidnapped daughter and takes Robin (Fishback) along for the ride while her cop friend Frank (Levitt) searches for her, and people take a lot of drugs that give them unpredictable super-powers. It’s pretty much all been done before, especially the father on the road for revenge or justice which has been used countless times and while these drugs are much more stylish than previously, it isn’t enough of a change and it doesn’t have a satisfying enough journey to make an impact. Especially the ending which feels as though it was ramped up to but then resolved much too quickly and easily with too little danger. As well as a particularly uninspired villain played by a horribly goateed Rodrigo Santoro, he plays a role so inconsequential that it could have been kept a mystery for a reveal in the finale which would have been more effective. One of the few things that makes it a little different is that it’s based in New Orleans, although it doesn’t alter the story a great deal other than a few notes in the visual and Frank’s permanent wearing of a Saints jersey. There’s unfortunately some problematic editing that doesn’t make full use of the fight choreography and action sequences, falling into the classic trap of heavy handedness.
Project Power’s opening feels weak, you can see what it’s going for but comes across fairly empty and sadly as far as its original qualities go its very reflective of the rest of the film. Anyone looking for something new and different isn’t going to find that, but they are going to find some great, entertaining performances from Levitt, Foxx and Fishback that are fun to watch. Its story and style feel utterly familiar, it doesn’t try anything particularly different or take risks, it plays it safe to the highest degree but it still has enough entertainment value to make it worth watching. There was potential to do much more with the film but the end result isn’t a surprise given the directorial and writing team behind it, so it’s best to go into this without your hopes too high.