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Joseph Gordon-Levitt Is Hollywood’s Premier Overachiever

Seen most recently in Netflix’s ‘Project Power,’ your boy JGL’s most admirable feature is his undying commitment to make a scene work

Netflix/Ringer illustration

“Gun and badge on the table now,” barks the pissed-off police captain to the rule-breaking cop, and oh, wow, this movie came out in 2020. It came out Friday. What a delight to stumble across an ageless cliché that pure—“Gun and badge on the table now,” barked the Lord, to Job, in the Old Testament—in the wild. In Netflix’s new superhero-ish action flick Project Power, this particular pissed-off police captain is played by Courtney B. Vance, which makes sense; the rule-breaking cop, Frank, on the other hand, is played by … Joseph Gordon-Levitt?! Does that make sense? Does that especially not make sense?

Directed by Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, Project Power is set in New Orleans and concerns a mysterious new drug that will give you a random superpower for exactly five minutes. (Or less, if it turns out your personal superpower is “you blow up immediately.”) The drug, which Frank breaks the rules by taking, makes him essentially bulletproof; he is the tough but kind-hearted cop just trying to protect his city from all manner of action-movie peril, and he’s awfully winsome in a year with justifiably very little patience for copaganda.

He also likes to wear his badge on a chain around his neck, to better accentuate his Saints jersey. (Steve Gleason.) “We know what happened last time we were countin’ on guys in suits to look out for New Orleans,” Frank barks righteously at his captain, which involves Gordon-Levitt not doing a gaudy New Orleans accent, exactly, but not not doing a gaudy New Orleans accent. It’s all quite silly—his first big fight scene pits him against a guy named “Newt” played by Machine Gun Kelly. But historically, the sillier our hero’s situation gets, the harder he works to make it all make sense.

You may recall that JGL has played a cop before, in a 2012 micro-indie called The Dark Knight Rises; by that point you may have already learned to love him for the singular way his roles either play against type or play as close to type—adorable yet cerebral—as humanly possible. “Don’t call it a comeback, I’ve been here for years!” he tweeted on Friday, touting Project Power, his second of three movies out this year after a four-year on-camera hiatus. “This one’s the eye candy,” he added. There was also a smiley face in there somewhere.

As trashy Netflix action flicks go, Project Power looks a whole lot like 2017’s Cops vs. Orcs (or whatever) farce Bright, but it’s fortunately way better; it aspires to the grit and grandeur of July’s mythic Charlize Theron jam The Old Guard even if it doesn’t have nearly the same stern gravity. Project Power is fine. Dumb, but fine. It’s way more satisfying at 10 a.m. than 10 p.m., if that makes any sense.

At any time, anyway, it beats the hell out of The Tax Collector, and it will suffice as one of 600 insufficient distractions as we sit around waiting for Tenet. But JGL, generously subverting himself to the charisma of his costars Jamie Foxx and The Deuce luminary Dominique Fishback, makes a decent rule-breaking cop; he’s self-deprecating (his Clint Eastwood tough-guy impression is a running joke) but ready to kick ass when the ass presents itself. “There’s, like, a thousand guards out there,” Fishback’s drug-dealer-with-a-heart-of-gold character observes as the Final Battle kicks off on an imposing ship down at the docks (speaking of classic Old Testament moves), and Frank just cocks his shotgun and quips, “But you know I’m awesome, right?” OK, fine.

Gordon-Levitt is pushing 40 but still comes on like the ’90s child actor (shout-out Angels in the Outfield) and quirky-tween sitcom star (shout-out Third Rock From the Sun) he somehow never stopped being. You want to put him in your pocket; you want to feed him soup. I would summarize his vibe as “Michael Cera, but really into bitcoin.” As Hollywood leading men go, he’s undersized (Oliver Stone’s 2016 biopic Snowden makes a point of weighing in its titular star at 150 pounds) but bulks up nicely, as he did for his 2013 writer-director-star vehicle Don Jon, in which he played a meathead ladies’ man with dauntless aplomb. Whatever the conceit, you can’t say this guy doesn’t get you to buy in.

His career arc has a familiar shape but a four-dimensional-chess aspect. Remember: adorable yet cerebral. Teen movies, but cerebral teen movies. (See 1999’s Shakespearean delight 10 Things I Hate About You and 2005’s neo-noir Brick.) Rom-coms, but cerebral rom-coms. (See 2009’s (500) Days of Summer, or don’t; we’ll get back to that, or won’t.) Trashy action flicks, but cerebral trashy action flicks. (See 2012’s macho time-traveling epic Looper, in which he gets his ass kicked by Bruce Willis but also holds his own.) The best way to explain his dramatic range is that he did Looper and Lincoln in the same year; the highest compliment I can pay is that Gordon-Levitt is, seriously, my favorite part of Christopher Nolan’s ultra-cerebral 2010 monolith Inception. I love it when he kisses Ellen Page on the bench; I love it when he throws down in a zero-gravity hallway fight and then wraps up all his way tougher and more prestigious costars into a li’l zero-gravity sushi roll.

There is a fearsome old-school charisma at work here. Recall his first time hosting Saturday Night Live in 2009, when he recreated “Make ’Em Laugh” from Singin’ in the Rain (click fast!) with an outright terrifying intensity, doing multiple backflips and crashing through a wall and generally working harder in three minutes than most cast members work in three years. Or recall, yes, OK, his just-as-terrifying lovelorn intensity in (500) Days of Summer, an ultra-whimsical and prophetic rom-com in the sense that the battle for the soul of our country is now basically being waged between people who think Zooey Deschanel is the villain (for not loving him) and people who think he’s the villain (for being indignant at her for not loving him). I know how I’m voting, but I still love him anyway.

The playing as close to type as possible element of all this is that Gordon-Levitt tends to be absurdly well cast for his most prominent roles. Too well cast, you might say. JGL is Edward Snowden, flicking a Rubix cube and being 200 percent smarter and 500 percent more awkward than everyone else while melodramatically vying to save America from itself. The bad news is that the movie itself is as pompous as it is claustrophobic, and Gordon-Levitt overcommits to a distracting bass voice that’s undercut when the real-life Snowden shows up at the end and doesn’t quite sound like that. Elsewhere, JGL is Philippe Petit, the brash French wire-walker who infiltrated and crossed the World Trade Center towers in the ’70s, as depicted in Robert Zemeckis’s 2015 adventure The Walk. It’s a dream role in that he gets to do magic tricks, and coo and/or bark at people in French, and wear black turtlenecks, and ride a fuckin’ unicycle. The movie, like the man, is all the whimsy you can stand and far beyond, but as usual the man fares just a little bit better.

Gordon-Levitt took a couple of years off mostly for young-family reasons; he’s a tinkerer, a deep thinker, an affable aspiring mogul, a big Twitter prompt guy. (Click here to show him your best cat voice.) He is correct about Project Power being the eye candy compared to his first 2020 not-a-comeback role, in Patrick Vollrath’s sparse hijacked-plane thriller 7500, which hit Amazon Prime in June. JGL plays the copilot, Tobias, not adorable but extra cerebral: This is the sort of action thriller that kicks off with a Gandhi quote and pretty much never leaves the cockpit. Things get bloody and gnarly, and big-time Acting is called for, which you know full well Gordon-Levitt will deliver, putting A-plus effort into a bizarre and unsettling little B-minus movie. None of this works if he doesn’t work way too hard to make it work, and so it does.

You can catch Gordon-Levitt next in October in a very different sort of Netflix movie: Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicago 7, a big prestige swing loaded with big-shot actors begging their director to tear gas them and whatnot. Look for your boy to steal a few scenes, shrewdly adapting to the circumstances as he always has, underplaying just as effectively as he overplays.

You wanna know my favorite Joseph Gordon-Levitt movie? 50/50—the 2011 buddy comedy (great chemistry with Seth Rogen) that is also a rom-com (great chemistry with Anna Kendrick) and, oh yes, a great melodrama (50/50 are his character’s odds of beating cancer). The one when he shaves his head. The one that’s just one click funnier and sweeter and weepier than it had to be. The one custom built for an underplayer who doubles as an overachiever. Because whatever the job, whatever the stakes, he puts it all on the table.