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‘Project Power’ and Our Endless Wave of Bad Dumb Action Movies

What’s the difference between stupid-dumb and smart-dumb? Netflix’s new Jamie Foxx film is just the latest stinker to demonstrate what a fine line it can be.

Project Power is a dumb movie. That alone is not disqualifying — sometimes, a well-made dumb movie is exactly what you need — but unfortunately, this Netflix action film is stupid-dumb instead of smart-dumb. In fact, it’s so stupid, it’s actually more accurately labeled as stoopid. 

Making a movie is hard work — the collective effort of thousands of individuals all working together, trying to pull in the same direction — and requires people at the peak of their craft. Make fun of Michael Bay or the man responsible for Cats all you want, but the truth is, films demand a level of expertise far beyond the grasp of mere mortals like you and me. And, yet, quite often, they end up being so bad, so inconsequential, such a waste of everyone’s time. A movie like Project Power demonstrates how challenging it is to craft an authentically great dumb action movie — the sort of shut-off-your-brain delight that is absolutely not good for you but produces endless pleasure. Positioning itself as delicious trash, Project Power is an insult to top-notch garbage.

The movie features actors you’ve liked before. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is Frank, a New Orleans cop who doesn’t play by the rules. (You know he’s irreverent — and roots for his hometown team — because he does his job while rocking a Saints jersey. Who dat?!?) Frank is trying to stop the spread of Power, a fashionable new drug that’s popped up in the Big Easy. Does Power get you high? Well, sorta: It’s a capsule that, when you ingest it, gives you a specific superpower. However, everybody’s reaction to it is different: Some people become impervious to bullets, others become giant monsters. (Oh, and other folks just die.) 

Frank teams up with a wily teenage dealer, Robin (Dominique Fishback), to get closer to the supplier. What he doesn’t know is that, simultaneously, a former soldier, Art (Jamie Foxx), is also after the people behind Power. These three characters don’t have much in common, but they’ll team up to kick some ass. Or something. 

Project Power mostly lives for its high-octane, brain-killing action sequences. Directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, the Catfish guys behind Paranormal Activity 3 — for my money, still the best of that series — go in for a lot of gross-out fight scenes. (Blood splatters, body parts fly.) Every time a character takes Power, we get frenetic shots of the inside of their body as their bloodstream goes berserk. (Mmm, that’s some good Power.) The filmmakers throw in an extra wrinkle — Power is only effective for five minutes — but one of Project Power’s remarkable achievements is that it actually manages to make the simple possession of superpowers, no matter how briefly, seem incredibly dull.

Everyone has their personal picks for great action movies. Here are some off the top of my head: Raiders of the Lost Ark, Die Hard, The Matrix and Mission: Impossible – Fallout. They’re all stunningly made and feature engaging characters and fabulous action sequences. Also something they have in common: They aspire to be, in their own way, works of art in the action-movie genre. They take the genre seriously and try to make something groundbreaking within its strictures. In other words, they’re smart action movies.

But other types of good action movies don’t have that same level of high-minded ambition. They just want to be big, bad fun, and who cares if they’re “respectable”? In this subsection, I’d put everything from Face/Off to John Wick. There’s something lovably junky and ornery about action movies like this. (These are the kinds of movies dudes like Quentin Tarantino probably love because they don’t put on airs.) If a movie just wants to get the job done — delivering cool action and nifty explosions with a minimum of fuss — it falls into this eminently worthy category.

And then you’ve got the truly terrific stupid action movies — the films that should be preposterous but are so well-excuted that you laugh along with their absurdities. The platonic ideal of a film in this category is Lucy, a truly dopey action-thriller in which Scarlett Johansson becomes an all-powerful genius after she accidentally absorbs a bunch of experimental drugs. Lucy makes absolutely no sense. (The whole movie is based on the premise that the main character, unlike the rest of us, is suddenly able to utilize more than 10 percent of her brain, which is an urban myth and completely not true.) But the film is so stylish and witty — and Johansson so sells Lucy’s transformation into an omniscient, badass god — you go along with the inanity. Director Luc Besson practically elbows you in the ribs the whole time: “Yes, this is all ridiculous, but aren’t you having fun?” 

It’s a slippery slope, however, from smart-dumb to stupid-dumb. Take Michael Bay, for example: Early in his career, he made great stupid action movies — The Rock is a hoot, a symphony of overblown macho bluster and hyperactive scenery-chewing — but once he became a Hollywood titan, he started making Transformers films, which are the epitome of bad stupid action movies. (Those clattering robot epics are loud and violent and not a bit of fun.) Or what about Roland Emmerich, who aspires to do nothing more than popcorn extravaganzas like Independence Day? That’s a dumb action movie that knows its place, but it’s executed with relish, and it doesn’t make you feel bad for enjoying the hell out of it. (His whole career since then has been spent trying to recreate that particular brand of imbecilic magic, unsuccessfully.) We’ll embrace the stupidity if we can sense the pure joy that went into its making.

These sorts of awesome stupid action movies make you realize how lame something like Project Power is. You can tell when a movie really isn’t trying — when it’s pretending to be hip and edgy but is actually pretty stale. Joost and Schulman attempted something similar with 2016’s Nerve, but here there’s a snarky gloss to everything — a sarcastic “We don’t really mean it” quality that sucks the joy out of the story. Besson’s Lucy was stupid, but it worked because he absolutely meant it. The Rock is incredible because it commits to its ludicrousness. But Project Power loses its nerve, presenting us with characters who seem to be photocopies of clichéd action-thriller tropes, and Foxx and Gordon-Levitt play them with strained B-movie bluster that suggests they know they’re doing paycheck work. These big stars don’t have any specific angle on the material — they just hope acting blasé will come across as cool.

Project Power isn’t alone in its failed attempt to make stupid cool. There are many — too many — action movies these days that settle for this self-mocking style. Cognizant of the fact that they don’t have the budget or creativity of their betters, they pray a wisenheimer approach will lower your expectations far enough that you’ll grade the movie on a curve. (I’m thinking of something anemic like Spenser Confidential, in which Mark Wahlberg ostensibly played Spenser, the famed private eye, but was really just playing a smirking version of Mark Wahlberg, Action Hero.) At a time when theaters are still mostly closed — and top-flight action films like Tenet and Wonder Woman 1984 have been put in dry dock while we wait for the pandemic to pass — we’re stuck with cut-rate bad dumb action movies to tide us over, the kind so lame that nobody really minds if they never play in a theater. They’re too stupid-bad to merit the big screen. 

Before COVID-19, it was easy to be snarky about the relentless march of Fast and Furious movies and comic-book sequels, but five months into quarantine, I’ve developed a newfound appreciation for standard studio fare. Sure, the MCU could be a bit of a production line — each movie indistinguishable from every other one — but at least there was a certain baseline of competence there that made them feel like action-movie events. Now with them all gone, we’re stuck with Extraction, The Last Days of American Crime and Project Power — marginal action flicks that none of us would spend more than a minute thinking about normally. But in the desert of entertainment options that is this pandemic, they’re like a pool of water. More accurately, they’re a mirage.  

And, ultimately, that’s what annoys me most about bad dumb action movies. They’re dumb because they think we’re dumb and won’t notice. They’re dumb because their creators are actually better than this but decided not to bother. And it’s dumb that, for the forseeable future, we’re stuck with them until theaters (and actual good action movies, stupid or otherwise) come back.