A film review by Craig J. Koban March 23, 2021

BOSS LEVEL jjj

2021, R, 100 mins

Frank Grillo as Roy Pulver  /  Mel Gibson as Col. Clive Ventor  /  Naomi Watts as Jemma Wells  /  Will Sasso as Brett  /  Annabelle Wallis as Alice  /  Sheaun McKinney as Dave  /  Selina Lo as Guan Yin  /  Michelle Yeoh as Dai Feng  /  Ken Jeong as Chef Jake

Directed by Joe Carnahan  /  Written by Eddie Borey, Chris Borey, and Joe Carnahan

At one point in the new time looping sci-fi action comedy BOSS LEVEL the protagonist that's stuck re-living the same day over and over again comments that his fate is "like being stuck in a video game at a level you can't beat.." 

That's extremely on the nose.

Probably the best way I would accurately describe this film is that it plays like GROUNDHOG DAY, but Arnold Schwarzenegger-ized on a level of gleefully barbaric  action and over the top violence.  It comes from writer/director Joe Carnahan, who definitely knows a little about action and violence, but this time he crafts a wild eyed and frenetic genre exercise that's laced with the accoutrements of what's quickly becoming a very crowded time looping genre (with an added dash of sci-fi intrigue and video game inspired aesthetics).  There's an undeniable meta quality at play here as well with BOSS LEVEL in the way that it features a hero that's forced to re-live the same death defying day over and over again and without no end (obviously, the action genre at its worst is about repeatedly regurgitating the same mayhem and carnage beats featuring an unkillable hero to the point of numbing audiences into submission).  I won't go as far in labeling this film as a shrewd piece of satire, but as a genre hodgepodge I found it relentlessly paced, cheerfully bombastic, and at times quite cleverly written.  If EDGE OF TOMORROW and PALM SPRINGS had a baby this would be the end result. 

Carnahan thankfully doesn't waste time with introductions and opens things with a literal bang.  We meet Roy (Frank Grillo), who awakens every morning with a woman at his bedside, but with armed marauders that break into his room and attempt to slash him to death.  That's just the beginning of his morning from hell.  After dispensing with these hired goons, Roy has to evade gatling machine gun fire from a nearby helicoptor that shows up without notice, and even after that he escapes death not once, but twice here as he throws himself out the window before his apartment explodes in hellish fireball.  Roy crash lands on a Dodge Challenger on the ground, which he then steals to evade even more heavily armed goons.  Oh, he never fully escapes unharmed as he then runs the car right smack dab into a bus head-on.  Here's the weird thing, though: As relayed in his snarky voiceover narration track, this is not the first time that Roy has experienced everything just mentioned.  In fact, he's had the rudest of rude wake-up calls well over 100 times and since he keeps reliving this same day all the time he's able to pitch perfectly choreograph his response/defense to everything that's thrown his way.  Like a video game character in his own action series, with every day that Roy respawns to replay his day he gets a little further ahead, but when he dies - yup! - he's hurtled right back to the beginning again. 

 

 

Even though Roy is fully aware of his dicey predicament, he nevertheless has no idea whatsoever how this happened to him and, moreover, how to fix this problem to go back to living a normal life that has one day leading into the next and so on.  What's frustrating for him - outside of the obvious - is that his day almost always ends with his murder, leaving him trying to progress more and more, utilizing past experience to learn and memorize patterns of behavior that his attackers employ.  As much as he tries, Roy can never seem to make it past lunch time (so, yeah, like a video game with an impossibly difficult level, no matter what Herculean effort he attempts...he just can't make it through the afternoon and into the evening).  Thankfully and rather conveniently, he's ex-military, which means that he's good with his hands and with most weapons.  We're given snippets of his past sprinkled in here and there, like details about his semi-estranged relationship with his ex-lover in Jemma (Naomi Watts), who's a scientist working on a top secret experiment for a ruthless industrialist and colonel named Ventor (a demonically bearded Mad Max himself, Mel Gibson), who controls his employees with a despotic iron fist.  When Roy eventually learns that his temporal affliction may have something to do with Jemma's work, he takes it upon himself to push forward and make it through each re-lived day as far as possible to pick up clues and piece together what in the h-e-double hockey sticks is going on...

...that is before he dies and rinses and repeats.... 

I know that many fans of last year's critically acclaimed PALM SPRINGS may be crying a resounding foul when it comes to BOSS LEVEL, which, on paper, bares a striking resemblance in the way that the time looping character's demise is used as a darkly comedic accentuation mark to propel the narrative forward (that, plus the obvious GROUNDHOG DAY influences).  To be fair, though, BOSS LEVEL was shot two years ago and a full year before PALM SPRINGS ever saw the light of day, which helps override any rip-off claims.  Also, the protagonist in PALM SPRINGS seemed to have a level of acceptance of his condition and just, well, went with the flow.  Roy, by comparison, isn't the same kind of Zen influenced laid back dude and instead makes a conscious effort to end his time hopping via any means necessary...even if it means killing a whole lot of people over and over...and over again.  Part of the macabre enjoyment factor of BOSS LEVEL resides in Carnahan upping the ante for preposterous action set pieces and unrelenting bloodletting that sees poor Roy suffer and die in a multitude of nightmarish ways.   

And, man, has Roy ever suffered throughout this whole twisted ordeal.  He's been shot to death, stabbed to death, beheaded, run over...you name it.  But with each day ending no later than 12:47pm, he's able to take everything he's learned to essentially become an invincible God...at least in his replayed morning leading into the early afternoon.  At one humorous point, Roy does make it further into the day, but seems to struggle when it comes to infiltrating the villain's heavily fortified secret lair.  His biggest roadblock comes in defeating one of the baddie's most unbeatable boss fighters in a sword swinging martial artist (Selina Lo).  No problem!  Since Roy has to repeat the day an infinite number of times he's able to get help from a woman that frequents his favorite noodle bar (played by martial arts genre legend Michelle Yeoh), who just so happens to be very adept with swords.  When you got nothing but free repeated time, it's easy to become proficient in a new weapon to secure victory from a once unstoppable opponent. 

Frank Grillo as an actor sure is wearing on me.  Where he lacks in range as a performer he more than makes up for it on a level of physical presence and wily charm (and for being halfway to 60, he looks ridiculously carved out of granite).  I thought he was good in a no-nonsense kind of way in some of the PURGE sequels and was a nice addition playing a low rent scarred villain in the MCU.  In BOSS LEVEL, though, he has to essentially carry the entire weight of this film on his already broad and sculpted shoulders, and I think he acclimates himself rather fine in terms of harnessing all of the sheer lunacy that surrounds him with some fine comedic chops while simultaneously (and plausibly) being a grizzled and determined action hero.  He's a hoot here, as is Gibson playing his snarling evildoer that seems to be winking at the audience that he's clearly in on the gag that is this film.  The supporting cast assembled here is quite fine, like the aforementioned Yeoh and Will Sasso as Ventor's second in command (he has a disturbingly hysterical bit with a blunt instrument wound late in the film).  The Oscar nominated Watts, on the other hand, seems to be underused here in an underwritten role.   

Carnahan also makes a bit of a misstep by injecting some family drama into the mix featuring Roy trying to fix burnt bridges with his son (played by his real life son, Rio Grillo), which allows Grillo to flex his acting chops a bit, but seems a bit disingenuous in tone to the rest of the madcap nature of the film built around that.  And depending on how many recent time lopping films you've seen as late (in my case...many), there's an undeniable sense of - no pun intended - deja vu here with the core premise.  BOSS LEVEL is ripe with mindless and gruesome excess as a time hopping adventure, but I'll concede that it's made with relative polish and has a breakneck editorial flow that makes Roy's journey pretty exhilarating and entertaining to boot.  Most importantly, BOSS LEVEL never feels like a dull or uninspired kick at the can of a genre that seems to be becoming all the rage now.  Obviously, there's only so much one can do with the GROUNDHOG DAY gimmick, but BOSS LEVEL has unbridled fun with said gimmick and imparts in it a whole lot of breathless energy and outlandish gumption.  

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