Warning: This analysis contains spoilers for both Project Power and One Piece
In Netflix’s Project Power (2020), a drug named Power—aptly named for its effect of granting temporary abilities to its user—wreaks havoc in the streets of New Orleans. It is up to Jamie Foxx, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and Dominique Fishback to take down the conspiratorial forces behind these pills.
At one point in the film, the suppliers organize a demonstration. When the test subject starts to freeze the air around her, Biggie (Rodrigo Santoro) humorously alludes to the Disney film Frozen (2013). As a manga/anime fan, however, I found myself drawing parallels to a different work of animated fiction: One Piece.
Perhaps less popular with Western audiences than household favorites like Naruto and Dragon Ball Z, One Piece reigns globally as the best-selling manga of all time. The ongoing series follows a crew of pirates led by Strawhat Luffy, who seeks to find a legendary treasure and become the “King of Pirates.”
For fans of One Piece, Project Power’s central premise — a consumable pill grants the user a random superpower — sounds strikingly similar to the Devil Fruits of the One Piece universe. These fruits, when consumed, grant the user a random superpower in exchange for the user losing his/her ability to swim forever. For each Power-user in the Netflix film, there is a similar Devil Fruit user in the One Piece universe.
When Newt (Machine Gun Kelly) turns up the heat, he resembles Portgas D. Ace, a pirate who ate the Devil Fruit of Fire.
When Frank (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) hardens his skin, he resembles Jozu, a pirate who ate the Devil Fruit of Diamond.
When the test subject freezes the air, she resembles Aokiji, a marine admiral who ate the Devil Fruit of Ice.
When the bank robber blends into his surroundings, he resembles Absalom, a pirate who ate the Devil Fruit of Invisibility.
When Biggie turns into a giant monstrosity, he resembles Tony Tony Chopper, a reindeer who ate the Devil Fruit of Humanity. When his powers go berserk, he transforms into a mindless human-reindeer hybrid that attacks both friend and foe.
When the guard breaks his own bones and stretches his skin, he resembles Monkey D. Luffy, the protagonist of One Piece who ate the Devil Fruit of Rubber.
When Art (Jamie Foxx) blows away his enemies with a mere swing of his arms, he resembles Bartholomew Kuma, a cyborg whose Devil Fruit of Paws (cute name, I know) grants him the power to repel air and generate similar shockwaves.
When Tracy (Kyanna Simone Simpson) heals people’s wounds, she resembles Mansherry, a dwarven princess who ate the Devil Fruit of Healing.
The similarities between the two stories do not stop at just the powers being showcased. Project Power also features plot points that could have been adapted directly from One Piece.
In the film, a defense contractor called Teleios has created the titular drug by manipulating the human genome to activate “superpowers” derived from animals. To perfect the drug’s effectiveness, the agents of Teleios unleash the drug into New Orleans as a way of carrying out secret human trials.
In the manga, a rogue government scientist named Caesar Clown has created a breed of artificial Devil Fruit that is ironically named “SMILE.” These artificial fruits have various side-effects, but they can grant a user the ability to partially transform into animals. Like the drug Power, SMILE was created through genetic engineering — the manga heavily implies that Devil Fruits function by altering the user’s DNA.
Midway through the film, Biggie puts on a demonstration of Power to a group of black-market buyers (including a woman who is connected to “every cartel in South America”). Caesar Clown performs a similar exhibition in One Piece, showing off a deadly chemical weapon to various business players in the black market. The conspiracy is revealed in this scene: Caesar carries out illegal experiments on a deserted island previously used for government R&D, and his projects are sponsored by a powerful pirate and underworld broker by the name of Doflamingo.
In Project Power, police captain Crane (Courtney B. Vance) pretends to be Frank’s friend, but he secretly collaborates with Teleios and protects their illegal human trials of the drug. In One Piece, the local branch of the marines is headed by Vice Admiral Vergo, who secretly works for the Doflamingo crime family. Just like the corrupt police captain, Vergo protects Caesar Clown’s Devil Fruit enterprise. Doflamingo profits, the authorities look the other way, and Caesar pumps more and more SMILE fruits into the market.
Both stories reveal a simple truth: humans are obsessed with power, and where there is an obsession, there is profit to be made by some entrepreneurial mastermind. Governments are supposed to crack down on dangerous enterprises, but they are easily corrupted. When Eiichiro Oda (creator of One Piece) and Mattson Tomlin (writer of Project Power) pit their valiant heroes against a conspiratorial alliance between drug-dealers, private corporations, and corrupt authorities, audiences receive a story that is both thrilling and believable — whether it’s a star-studded Netflix film or a Japanese comic about treasure-seeking pirates.
Project Power falls short, however, of fully capitalizing on this potential. Coming in at 114 minutes, the film is too short to compellingly spin such a complex web and also untangle it. The premise plateaus as a flashy usage of big-budget production and fancy VFX. Perhaps the concept could have played out better in a TV series.
On the other hand, One Piece shines in its longevity. Going on its 24th year, the story features over 900 characters, and many of those characters possess unique Devil Fruit abilities (no power can exist in more than one person at one time). Against a backdrop of immaculate world-building and surprisingly mature themes, each Devil Fruit breathes new life into the story. Oda creates new mysteries right as he seems to solve existing ones, and the adventure never stales.
I enjoyed Project Power, but for a better exploration of how consumable powers mix with rogue R&D, government corruption, and unrestrained capitalism, I’m going to stick with my Japanese cartoons.