Boss Level (2020)
Gone today, here tomorrow.
Stuck in development hell for almost a decade, co-writer/director Joe Carnahan, Smokin’ Aces (2006), has been wanting to make an action version on Groundhog Day (1993) for years. Originally titled Continue, Boss Level has been a passion project for Carnahan and star Frank Grillo since 2012, with the pair planning on using the age-old time-loop formula in a video game-like fashion — the more you play a certain game level, the more you advance, until you’re tough enough to make it through to the ‘Boss Level.’ With films like Edge of Tomorrow (2014) and Source Code (2011) already doing wonders with the recipe, you’d think that this premise has been somewhat overdone, yet Boss Level still finds a way to raise the difficulty level. An unruly, violent, and funny tribute to the era of tough guys and 8-bit video game arcades, Boss Level is a riot.
We meet our protagonist, former Delta Force captain Roy Pulver (Frank Grillo), on ‘Attempt 139,’ where he’s trying to survive an onslaught of lethal assassins who are coming to take his life every single day in the exact same way (be it with assault weapons, grenade launchers, explosives, you name it) before the day starts anew. Hell, the poor guy can’t even drink his morning coffee without having to dodge bullets hurtling from a helicopter minigun outside his apartment. While Roy’s got the art of surviving the AM down pat, he has yet to make it past 12:47 PM, where he sits down at a shady diner, run by wise-cracking Chef Jake (Ken Jeong), to have a drink and is gunned down by the mercenaries hot on his tail.
Eager to make it beyond the midday point, Roy discovers that the time-loop he’s stuck in might have something to do with his ex, Dr. Jemma Wells (Naomi Watts), a scientist who he still holds a torch for. It turns out that Jemma works for a crooked military scientist, Colonel Clive Ventor (Mel Gibson), who’s been constructing a super-secret project that can re-shape history named the Osiris Spindle, which might have something to do with Roy’s current predicament. Therefore, to end the loop and break the cycle, and maybe even find a way to re-connect with Jemma and their 11-year-old son Joe (Rio Grillo), Roy will have to fight through each obstacle in a bid to infiltrate Ventor’s impenetrable base and beat the ‘final level.’
Written by filmmaker Carnahan, along with Chris and Eddie Borey, Open Grave (2013), Boss Level rarely lets up as the movie is packed with energetic video-game-esque action, over-the-top violence, and crazy characters, all of whom we discover via Roy’s amusing voice-over narration, which runs throughout the film. Some of these ‘mini bosses’ or run ‘n’ gun enemies include a couple of femme fatales Roy calls Pam (Meadow Williams) and Esmerelda (Armida Lopez), a look-alike he dubs Roy #2 (Eric Etebari), a little guy with a love for explosives who Roy calls Kaboom (Aaron Beelner), and the infamous sword-fighting babe Guan-Yin (Selina Lo) who recites her catchphrase, ‘I am Guan-Yin, and Guan-Yin has done this,’ every time she offs Roy during one of his many ‘Attempts.’
Furthermore, all of the action sequences are incredibly different, the film mixing urban street action with wacky sci-fi and Hong Kong-style combat, each ‘zone’ well-crafted and choreographed by Bryan Sloyer, Aquaman (2018). The flick also sports some slick cinematography by Juan Miguel Azpiroz, Point Blank (2019), despite some cartoony-looking VFX that expose the movie’s low budget. Irrespective, it’ll still appeal to action movie buffs and gamers, with Carnahan’s nihilistic influences ringing loud and clear. The film’s biggest problem, however, bar slumping in its middle portion, is the resolution which turns to the ‘generic’ internal growth and personal reflection as a means to get out of the never-ending loop, the same resolve that other similar themed stories tend to finish off on.
Aside from the balls-to-the-wall action, it’s clear that the ensemble cast is all having a killer time, which is pretty darn infectious. Frank Grillo, The Grey (2011), proves that he has the chops to lead a blockbuster film and be a prominent action figure à la John Cena or Dave Bautista, Grillo finding the right balance of roughness, gusto, and humor for the part. Mel Gibson, Braveheart (1995), plays the cigar-chomping Bond-type baddie with ease, bringing a malevolent glee to his larger-than-life character, Clive Ventor. Funnyman Will Sasso, The Three Stooges (2012), is also great as Ventor’s comically evil head of security Brett Dynow, so is the always charming Annabelle Wallis, Annabelle (2014), who plays Alice, a one night stand whose purpose becomes more evident the more Roy progresses.
Elsewhere, Martial arts actress Selina Lo, The Debt Collector (2018), is quite impressive (can someone please give her some more work) as the angel-faced killer Guan-Yin. It’s also good to see Michelle Yeoh, Tomorrow Never Dies (1997), back on the (big) screen as famous swordmaster Dai Feng, who teaches our ‘main player’ a thing or two about mastering the blade. The weakest link in the cast is Naomi Watts, King Kong (2005), who comes off as somewhat miscast as Roy’s partner Jemma, Watts struggling to sell the pair’s romantic connection.
Ultimately, Boss Level succeeds at what it sets out to do, which is provide about 100 minutes of rip-roaring turn-your-brain-off fun whilst serving as a vehicle for Frank Grillo, who’ll hopefully move onto larger projects. As far as disposable entertainment goes, I’d say Boss Level is a boss effort!
3.5 / 5 – Great
Reviewed by Mr. Movie