Speak Truth to Power: Schulman & Joost Present a Jagged Little Pill
Directing duo Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost continue their genre-tinged explorations of continually evolving entities and institutions with their latest hybrid, Project Power, their sixth narrative feature. A mix of high profile cast members and impressive newcomers assist in elevating a script from Mattson Tomlin (The Batman, 2021) which starts off with panache before whittling itself into predictable parameters more primed for future endeavors than a satisfactory finale for the character-driven melodrama. Moonlighting as a science-fiction cop drama, the conspiracy tinged subtexts which initially make the title seem so interesting unfortunately end of as window dressing.
A new, mysterious drug has infiltrated the streets of New Orleans, an expensive designer item called Power, which contains swirly, glowing particles in glass capsule, that once activated and ingested allow the user five minutes of super powers based on innate aspects of their own DNA. It also has the potential of making one explode, a result which seems impossible to predict. Distributed by Biggie (Rodrigo Santoro) as an experiment or an eventual national and global rollout, the drugs are being manufactured on a boat, Genesis, lorded over by Gardner (Amy Landecker). Part of their development necessitates the study of a biologically gifted young girl, Tracy (Kyanna Simpson), who was abducted from her ex-military father Art (Jamie Foxx). In search of his daughter, Art has a fiery showdown with local dealer Newt (Machine Gun Kelly), which leads him to one of his runners, high school student Robin (Dominique Fishback). While she’s able to lead him to Newt’s superiors, she’s also collaborating with NOPD officer Frank (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), who understands that he must also take the drug in order to capture criminals using it for nefarious ends. When his superior (Courtney B. Vance) sends Frank on a solo mission to detain Art, who he is told is the person responsible for the onslaught of Power on the streets, their convergence leads to the discovery of a secret network behind the drug.
Obviously, it’s much better to leave audiences with nagging questions than to tie everything up into a neat package, but there’s a component missing from Project Power. Invariably streamlining its narrative into a simplistic chase film, it’s a story which initially seems primed as a powerful metaphor grappling with systemic racism and the ongoing opioid crisis. The insidiousness of testing illegal or unauthorized substances on disenfranchised populations and then gathering data from them is a tale as old as the United States itself, and so when Tomlin’s screenplay makes the point of dropping the name Henrietta Lacks, one wishes the narrative depths of Project Power didn’t end up feeling so superficial (of interest, Kyanna Simpson was part of the Oprah Winfrey led television film “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” in 2017).
Despite this, there’s much joy to be gleaned from the chemistry between Dominique Fishback (The Hate U Give, 2018) in her interactions with both Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Jamie Foxx, the latter extremely likeable in this pulpy material (and a far cry from the failed possibilities of 2017’s Sleepless, for instance). Their early interactions recall the Safdie Bros. title Good Time (2017), even if only fleetingly. A carefully assembled soundtrack assists in executing an absorbing vibe, with Robin outfitted with some formidable raps (courtesy of the artist Chika, who appears on-screen as one of her classmates in one of the film’s best sequences), and returning DP Michael Simmonds (Halloween, 2018; Nerve, 2016) assists in brooding neo-noir pallets which sometimes distract enough from a suspiciously unpopulated version of New Orleans.
Other notable cast mates seem a bit underutilized, form Courtney B. Vance’s police captain to Rodrigo Santoro’s heavy, but Machine Gun Kelly, who appeared in the last two productions from Schulman and Joost, Nerve and Viral, is allowed one of the film’s most vibrant action sequences. At the end of the day, the script’s nagging questions revolve around the vagueness of its new designer drug and how Tracy and Art are at the center of its evolution. It seems there’s enough there to have landed on favored Stephen King motifs, such as passed down intergenerational powers, in items like Carrie or Firestarter, or perhaps the aftershocks of secret military experiments, like The Manchurian Candidate. As it stands, Project Power is interesting and enjoyable to behold. But it could have been more powerful.