Happy Death Day did time-loop horror. Palm Springs did time-loop rom-com. Edge of Tomorrow implemented it into action/sci-fi. Heck, even Doctor Strange gave us a time-loop superhero. Now Boss Level purports to do a more straightforward action movie with a time-loop conceit—in theory replicating the kind of rote learning found in all those movies, not to mention Russian Doll; the cinematic well from which all these films draw, Groundhog Day; and videogames. Its failure to follow through on this promise, never fulfilling the potential of Frank Grillo’s lead role or its own over-the-top silliness, makes the mostly dull effort more of a grind than end-game content.
And director Joe Carnahan should know better. He’s worked with Grillo plenty (notably in The Grey, which makes the movie’s one-liner about Liam Neeson work all the better), showing an understanding of the actor’s abilities and a way with visceral action. So why is so much of Boss Level spent on side quests?
Roy (Grillo) wakes up each morning under attack. A man swings a machete at his head; a helicopter’s chain gun hovers outside his window. He waltzes through this ambush in one of the most satisfying scenes in the film, as the open-concept apartment allows the side-scrolling choreography to play out with satisfying expertise. His undercut coif’s plumage stays perfectly in place as he parries, blocks and dodges. Roy has done this before. A lot. He’s some kind of super soldier, made more super by coming back to the same moment whenever he dies. You know how this works. But instead of living solely in this loop—enhancing each cycle with new information organically—an extended flashback rips us out in order to give us exposition and subplots.
Not only is Roy mysteriously living in a time loop, he’s also estranged from his wife Jemma (Naomi Watts) and his son, who doesn’t even know Roy’s his father. Jemma works for a kind of vaguely evil, militarized super-science company that would make Hideo Kojima roll his eyes, led by Mel Gibson’s gruff Colonel. Gibson is the exact kind of villainous blowhard to deliver Big Bad soliloquies, one aspect of the movie that actually errs pretty close to videogame narratives (though that also applies to pretty much every sci-fi/superhero blockbuster). It’s obviously through something the Colonel and Jemma are up to that’s got Roy stuck, though for those of you looking to crack the code…well, Primer this ain’t. Instead, it’s a far more traditional bad-dad actioner in the vein of Neeson or Gerard Butler’s arms-length patriarchs proving their affection through accumulating a high body count. The time loop, while it offers a few moments of cleverness, rarely feels like more than the flavorful framing device of the week.
Carnahan and his co-writers (Chris and Eddie Borey) take out plenty of toys from the chest—a bizarre array of assassins, from a self-important swordfighter to a set of Black German twins wielding RPGs, that should be a hoot to watch be dismantled—but mostly leave them untouched in favor of playing house with the film’s tired familial substory. There’s barely enough plot to hold its dragging 86 minutes together, so why wouldn’t you just lean into the madness? Will Sasso is playing a heavy, but he never gets his due; Michelle Yeoh shows up for a mere moment, wasting a hell of a cameo; and Sheaun McKinney’s heroic injection of energy (as an amusingly annoying security tech expert) never gets to rise above NPC status—even when watching Grillo pull his own teeth.
These are all just different expressions of the same basic problem: Rather than embracing its premise’s unique potential, Boss Level mires it in tropes and convention. When you have Grillo at your disposal and his time spent speaking is anywhere close to his time spent punching, stabbing, shooting or otherwise wrecking shop as one of our most grizzled action ballerinas, you’re not playing to your strengths. We’re here for Grillo’s cheeky grin, the superhuman stretch of his t-shirt sleeves, the elegance with which the 55-year-old can move his action figure physique. Grillo as absent husband/father, sassy voiceover Grillo—trying to combine all these into this character doesn’t just push him to ape different performers (Ryan Reynolds’ ability to be a charming smartass even in Deadpool’s most rote circumstances, Neeson’s loving gravitas driving his desperate latter-day actioners) but hamstrings a truly talented actor and the film with unfocused, unnecessary diversions.
Similarly, Boss Level purports to take the title and stylings of a videogame—keeping track of Roy’s attempts, relating its events to a hard level you’re slamming your head against the wall trying to beat by trial-and-error—while having that same hands-off, holier-than-thou loathing of videogames that movies that aren’t specifically adapting one always seem to have. Why spend your time pretending to beat people up in a game when you can pretend to beat people up in a movie? It’s an irony that flies over the film’s head like a dodged Hadouken.
It may sound like I’m being extra hard on this movie, and perhaps that’s because it’s such a dad rock movie that it’s making me go into tough fatherly love mode. Boss Level shows such enticing glimpses of potential—whether that’s Grillo’s fight scenes, sold with the grace and showmanship of a WWE superstar while Boston soars on the soundtrack, or the ridiculous weapons he can sometimes wield (remember that chain gun?)—that its time spent sitting and chatting feels especially egregious. One specific third act development in which Roy must race against the clock offers up a jolt of excitement, but it’s so little so late that it feels like a consolation prize. Any movie this low-IQ had better be high-octane. Ah well, maybe next loop they’ll figure it out.
Directors: Joe Carnahan
Writers: Chris Borey, Eddie Borey, Joe Carnahan
Stars: Frank Grillo, Mel Gibson, Naomi Watts, Michelle Yeoh, Will Sasso, Ken Jeong, Sheaun McKinney
Release Date: March 5, 2021 (Hulu)
Jacob Oller is Movies Editor at Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @jacoboller.
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