Despite its overtly referential title, Joe Carnahan’s unrelenting, made-for-Hulu murder-fest, Boss Level, actually isn’t as desperate to appeal to gamers as one might think. There are a handful of references to video games here and there, and the movie’s time-loop plot device does evoke the low-stakes, repetitive experience of playing games. But this is no Pixels—it’s a blistering action movie first, a middling sci-fi movie second, and, surprisingly, a delayed coming of age story in its fleeting moments of respite.
Frank Grillo stars as Roy Pulver, an ex-special forces badass who for reasons unknown relives the same day repeatedly, ducking and dodging a group of deadly mercenaries who attack him the same way every time. Each time he’s killed, he wakes up back in his loft at dawn, moments before a machete-wielding assassin attempts to chop his head off. After dozens of attempts Roy is able to survive deeper into the day via the most excruciating exercise of trial and error imaginable, but despite his efforts, he seems doomed to kill and be killed (in an invariably gruesome fashion) for eternity.
The sci-fi Groundhog Day concept is all too familiar (Edge of Tomorrow, Source Code), and Carnahan employs a ham-fisted narration device that borders on incessant. But Grillo’s performance is compelling enough to actually make the movie click in spite of its derivative nature. He’s that rare hardass action star who is actually championed by geeks due to his outstanding turn in the MCU as Brock Rumlow/Crossbones. He brandishes wit and self-deprecation with ease, and throughout Boss Level his charisma is on full display.
With an extensive background in boxing and Brazilian jiu-jitsu, Grillo is more than qualified to star in virtually any action role imaginable and look completely legitimate—because he is. Carnahan nods to this in the dialogue when Roy tells his son that the “guy from Taken” is “kind of a fake tough guy. I’m the real guy” (a playful dig at Liam Neeson, who has previously worked with Carnahan on The Grey and The A-Team).
And Boss Level indeed puts Grillo’s tough-guy cred to the test. He runs the action-movie gamut, crashing cars at high-speed, blowing things up with reckless abandon, and engaging in all manner of combat, including fistfights, swordfights, and, of course, copious amounts of ultra-violent gunplay.
The twist here is that Grillo gets to enact these spectacular stunts over and over again thanks to the time-loop mechanic. Sometimes he dodges the bullets fired from the machine gun-mounted helicopter outside his window with ease, sipping his coffee as the furniture around him gets blown to bits in slow motion. Other times, he leaps out of his window and tries to grab onto the helicopter skids to hitch a ride (to varying degrees of success). It’s a playful and inventive take on nonsensical action, and Grillo’s charm makes the countless over-the-top death scenes a lot easier to stomach. This balance of comedy and violence makes the movie feel more akin to Deadpool than, say, the oeuvre of Neveldine Taylor.
A sleepy Mel Gibson plays uber-rich villain Col. Clive Ventor and fails to make any sort of lasting impression despite the actor’s tenure on the big screen. Naomi Watts on the other hand has a much better showing as scientist Jemma, the mother of Roy’s son and head of a top secret project under Ventor and his hulking cronie, Brett (Will Sasso, whose comedic gifts are almost completely wasted here). Grillo and Watts come off as a believable pair, which is a bit surprising considering their seemingly disparate acting styles.
It’s a testament to their flexibility as actors, and their performances drive home the sneaky underlying message of the movie, which is to make the most of the precious little time we have on this earth by spending it with family. There’s a memorable scene between Roy and his son (Grillo’s real-life child, Rio) in which they bond over Street Fighter II that’s unexpectedly touching and actually doesn’t feel tonally at odds with the rest of the movie. Which is really saying something considering the graphic nature of the violence.
As the mystery of what/who is behind Roy’s waking nightmare is revealed, it becomes increasingly evident that the plot is nothing more than a means to an end. There’s nothing even remotely remarkable about Boss Level on paper—but on screen, it’s a lot of fun to watch and one of the best showcases of Grillo’s “very particular set of skills” yet.