With a title like Boss Level, you know you’re in for a round of goofy, fast-paced, over-the-top action fun. Especially when it’s being directed/co-produced/co-written by Joe Fucking Carnahan, with Frank Grillo in the lead against Mel Gibson — Mad Max himself! — as the Big Bad. And then you’ve got the supporting cast, featuring the likes of Naomi Watts, Annabelle Wallis, Ken Jeong, Will Sasso, and goddamn Michelle Yeoh.
Yeah, I’m pumped for this, why aren’t you? Let’s go!
We open in the middle of a time loop. Retired Special Forces Captain Roy Pulver (Frank Grillo) wakes up to find a cadre of assassins doing their absolute damnedest to kill him. He spends the entire day trying to evade the mercenaries until they inevitably kill him, then he wakes up on the exact same morning to do it all over again. I might add that because we start in the middle of a time loop, we’re treated to a badass elaborately choreographed fight scene right out of the gate.
We don’t initially know what caused the time loop, but it may have had something to do with his estranged girlfriend, Dr. Jemma Wells (Naomi Watts). Trouble is, she’s dead. Maybe. All we know is that she was alive yesterday, working on some kind of highly advanced science project. And now her boss (Colonel Clive Vector, played by Mel Gibson) wants Roy to think that she’s dead for whatever reason.
In any case, Roy has tried roughly 150 times to try and get some answers as to what’s going on and why everyone apparently wants him dead, but he’s gotten nowhere. He’s never even made it past 12:47 pm. So he’s basically resigned himself to make it to the same bar every day, drinking himself silly until he finally goes down and restarts the day.
Oh, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the kid. Joe (played by newcomer Rio Grillo, Frank’s actual son) is Roy and Jemma’s son, and Roy is on good and friendly terms with the kid, but Joe doesn’t know who his father is. Roy chased after a life of bullets, bloodshed, and booze, such that neither Jemma nor Roy himself trusted him to be a good father. So instead, he’s settled into something more like an uncle role. It’s a complicated situation, and it provides the protagonist with some much-needed heart.
Though Jemma certainly provides Roy with a great deal of pathos and motivation, it’s the Roy/Joe relationship that truly crystallizes the themes of the film. Just before the third act, there’s an extended sequence that shows Roy’s deep regret at missing so many years of Joe’s life, and his desperate use of the time loop to make up for all that lost time. Though I’ll grant that themes of regret, loss, the value of life, making every moment count, the wish that we could turn back the clock to undo our mistakes… all of this is standard fare for any time loop flick. But exploring it through the lens of a fractured father/son relationship was an inspired move.
In terms of the time loop mechanic, the action, and the comedy, there’s a clear comparison to be drawn with Edge of Tomorrow. There are some jokes and sequences in here that could’ve been lifted wholesale from the earlier Doug Liman film. Most notably, the two share a prominent sense of gallows humor, as the protagonist gets killed over and over and over again in various comically spectacular ways.
In point of fact, the basic structure of the plot — i.e. use the time loop to progress through a “main quest” until we reach a dead end, use the time loop to progress through a “side quest” until enough progress is made that the “main quest” can resume with some additional skill or clue — is pretty much identical to Edge of Tomorrow. Likewise, the “trial and error” approach to action — in which the protagonist knows all of his opponent’s moves because of all the times he’s fought and lost the same battle — lends itself to elaborately choreographed fight scenes in a method pulled directly from the Edge of Tomorrow playbook.
Then again, if anyone is going to make a time loop movie, they could do a hell of a lot worse than using the criminally underrated Edge of Tomorrow as a reference. And of course it helps that the premise is more than different enough from Edge of Tomorrow to set itself apart.
That said, Edge of Tomorrow had an advantage in that Tom Cruise had Emily Blunt to play off of. In the absence of another supporting character who can keep up with Roy, all he has is us. And so he speaks to the audience through voice-over narration. A lot of voice-over narration. A lot a lot. It speaks to Frank Grillo’s charisma and all the fun he’s clearly having that the narration doesn’t grate too terribly much, but it’s still excessive to an absurd degree.
Another problem is the uneven nature of the cast. Granted, it’s Frank Grillo’s show, so it’s understandable that most of the supporting cast would take a back seat. Ken Jeong barely gets any screen time as a bartender, but he gets off a few jokes and that’s good enough. Naomi Watts doesn’t have a lot to do, but she’s a performer who can make a huge impression with very little screen time and that’s exactly what the role demanded.
But then we have Annabelle Wallis, an actor whose proven talent and action chops are shamefully wasted on a role that could’ve been played by any dime-a-dozen pretty blonde. Even worse, they cast freaking Mel Gibson — previously the villain of Machete Kills and The Expendables 3, remember — to play the main antagonist in a movie titled “Boss Level” and he doesn’t get a huge fight scene. How do you fuck that up?!
Michelle Yeoh and Will Sasso are somewhere in between. Yeoh only gets one sequence to play with, but it’s a good use of what she brings to the table. As for Sasso, he’s given a much less comedic role than his typical fare, but he plays the heavy well enough.
As for the rest… well, the rest speaks for itself loud and clear. The action is a blast, the one-liners all pop, and the sci-fi aspect is just present enough to drive the plot forward without getting in the way of what we came to see.
Also, this is a movie that used the Wilhelm Scream — the tired, threadbare Wilhelm Scream that’s been done to death a hundred times more than Roy Pulver himself has — and they used it in a way that got a genuine laugh from me. That right there tells you pretty much everything you need to know about the picture.
Though I have to dock a lot of points for wasting a villainous turn from Mel Gibson, Boss Level is otherwise exactly what it says on the tin. Frank Grillo has more than proven his worth as a supporting player in action flicks, but this one makes him a fine vehicle as a bona fide action star, more than capable of carrying his own film. It’s a straightforward action flick with more than enough high-speed thrills and amusing one-liners to serve as a bit of escapist fun. I must also commend the filmmakers for throwing in just enough heart to break up the action while building up the requisite themes of the time loop subgenre in a satisfying way.
The film might be overstuffed, for how much the filmmakers tried to cram into 100 minutes — seriously, the movie could’ve gone for another 20 minutes, after the cliffhanger it ended on. Still, it’s certainly a compliment that the film left me wanting more. Check this one out.