This month, I’ve watched two middling Netflix originals that I didn’t enjoy all that much. But I did admire bits and pieces about both of them, and feel they actually compliment each other well. One is a big, over the top blockbuster that tells a potentially fascinating story in an all too mundane way. The other is a Mexican indie horror that barely has a plot at all, but still manages to generate really intriguing flashes of cinema.
You’ll have probably seen Project Power loitering on the Netflix home page. It’s an odd film, perpetually on the brink of becoming spectacular, but always getting in its own way. Its story revolves around a neat little thought experiment – what if you could take a pill that gave you a superpower? But what if you didn’t know what that superpower would be until you’d taken it?. The drug, Power, affects everyone in different ways. If you’re Joseph Gordon Levitt, for example, you become bulletproof, and that’s a pretty sweet deal when you’re an all action hero of the New Orleans Police Department. But then, alas, sometimes you have to try and catch bank robbers who have gained chameleon camouflage abilities from the pill. There are even rumours that people simply overdose and die after taking it, or straight up explode.
There are moments when Project Power makes wonderful use of its outlandish premise. The movie as a whole has a self consciously gritty tone, which is a bit annoying considering they’re telling a story about a magic superhero pill. The aim seems to be to impress 14 year old boys, who as we all know are the dirt worst people. But there’s this bit where Jamie Foxx’s character, Art, bursts into the dingy apartment of Power dealer Newt, determined to give him a comprehensive punching and find out where he’s getting his supply from. Newt responds by popping some Power and turning into the Human Torch, and we’re plunged into this dizzying, wild, inventive fight scene. In that moment, it all kind of makes sense. That feeling of overwrought realism smoothly giving way to sci-fi insanity, and even the transition back, is thrilling.
What’s most frustrating about Project Power is that it’s managed the hard bit. It somehow balances its competing desires to do a relatively grounded action film about the harsh reality of life on the mean streets of New Orleans, and an off the wall genre hopping romp about chemically induced superpowers. Yet other, more simple aspects of it are a swing and a miss. The ensemble lead trio of Foxx, Gordon-Levitt, and Dominique Fishbeck (as teenage Power dealer and aspiring rapper Robin) never particularly gel together. This has little to do with the performances of any of the actors and more to do with some ill conceived plotting.
Robin gets introduced to Art, for example, by him kidnapping her. Art’s daughter has been abducted by the shady distributors of Power, and he’s desperately targeting random dealers in the hope that one will be able to bring him to them. Still, it’s unedifying to see a grown man slam a teenage girl in the trunk of his car and then subject her to a spot of what basically amounts to torture for good measure. And then, nauseatingly, they become these reluctant best buds. By the end of the film, they’ve established a father-daughter bond.
Meanwhile, the ever likeable Joseph Gordon-Levitt is hamstrung by an unavoidable truth; 2020 is not the year for films about heroic white police officers forming quirky friendships with black vigilantes and drug dealers. In fairness, Gordon-Levitt he does a decent job of making you believe his character has the best of intentions. But there’s just a faint crassness to it all. By the film’s climactic moments, the novelty of the movie’s premise has worn off, and we’re left with a standard, competent action film to take us to the credits. Project Power isn’t bad, and doesn’t drag even at nearly two hours, but it doesn’t come anywhere close to its full potential.
By way of comparison, let’s take a quick glance at an oddity called Fuego Negro. Also known as ‘Dark Forces,’ it features Tenoch Huerta as Franco, a hyper masculine outlaw type searching for his missing sister. He holes up at a run down motel in an unnamed city, and, erm, from there… events occur. He has some vigorous intercourse with an attractive waitress, of whom there’s a lot more to than meets the eye. He consults a psychic albino in the hope she can reveal where his sister is. He has some freaky nightmares. Ultimately, a giant black tentacle thing crams itself down his throat and into his body, which doesn’t look pleasant.
What does all this mean? What does all this add up to? I dunno. Neither does Fuego Negro itself. It feels like it owes a lot to David Lynch with its creepy surrealism (there’s even a scene with a club singer crooning a song called ‘Fuego Negro,’ a motif ripped wholesale from Blue Velvet), although the cavalcade of bizarre imagery never feels as natural or truly inventive as Lynch’s tends to. There’s also a fair chunk of Nicolas Winding Refn in its neon soaked brutality, and in the perpetual nighttime noir-y vibes of wherever this film is meant to be taking place.
It is hardly a brutal insult to suggest Fuego Negro’s director, Bernardo Arellano, may not yet be on the level of those two, and as far as influences go, there are far worse people he could be taking notes from (particularly if he is specifically trying to appeal to me, which naturally I assume he is). But it kind of feels like Fuego Negro is borrowing heftily from other, better films, and hoping that something worthwhile will just develop of its own accord. It doesn’t work. It never convinces you that all this gratuitous weirdness is going to build to any kind of crescendo. The film peters out.
Still, I’d be optimistic about watching another Arellano film in the future. There’s enough there to suggest he might one day make a film worthy of his influences. I appreciated Fuego Negro a fair bit more than I appreciated Project Power, because it possesses a sincere desire to do something interesting and different, even if it doesn’t quite know how to. There’s also a splendid performance from Huerta in the main role. Resplendently mustachioed, eyes constantly blazing, eerily calm despite his body language perpetually suggesting he’s about three seconds from merking someone, he makes for a frightening, convincing, strangely likeable anti-hero. He would have been much better transplanted into Project Power to replace Jamie Foxx’s Art.
What have we learned from all this? Well, we’ve learned that while some films are very good indeed (like, say, Groundhog Day), and other films are amusingly bad (like that Italian animated version of Titanic), if you throw a dart at the Netfllix library and watch whatever it lands on, there’s a good chance it’ll be just about OK, but nothing to write home about. Like life itself, yeah? Yeah.