Starring: Frank Grillo, Mel Gibson & Naomi Watts
Directed by: Joe Carnahan
Distributed by: Hulu / Amazon Prime Video
Release Date: March 2021
Running Time: 113 mins
Synopsis: Trapped in a time loop that constantly repeats the day of his murder, a former Special Forces agent must unlock the mystery behind his untimely demise.
The ‘time loop’ movie has made a resurgence in recent years with the likes of Happy Death Day, Palm Springs, Source Code and Edge of Tomorrow all offering fresh takes on the genre that was once synonymous with Groundhog Day. Boss Level, as the name suggests, finds its inspiration from videogames with the film’s protagonist revived and reset to a ‘save point’ each time he dies during his adventure, much like how Mario reappears at the start of a level after colliding with a turtle shell. Surprisingly, the film doesn’t commit to the videogame aesthetic as heavily as one would expect from its title, although there are some small homages to the industry, such as the running total of the number of lives that Roy has used and the hierarchy of mini-bosses and an endgame boss that he must face.
Much like Palm Springs before it, Boss Level expects the viewer to already have a basic knowledge of ‘time loop’ mechanics and launches into the story a few loops in, gradually revealing the setup after some dynamic action sequences to set the scene. While the viewer is eventually given an explanation behind what has caused the time loops, it is a vaguely defined sci-fi McGuffin that doesn’t stand up to much scrutiny beyond ‘we tried to build a time machine and it broke’. The film seems to recognise the flimsiness of this, and spends most of its brisk 94 minute runtime from Roy’s point-of-view to avoid dwelling on it too much. This is a good thing as Frank Grillo is extremely charismatic as Roy, delivering witty narration over the action in a Deadpool-esque manner.
Frank Grillo is one of those actors that I had a passing awareness of – thanks mainly to his appearance as Crossbones in Captain America: Winter Soldier and Captain America: Civil War – so I wasn’t sure how he would fare in a leading role, but he was utterly charming and delivered a heartfelt performance as the oft-murdered Roy. For a film that revolves around its lead character continually dying in slapstick fashion, the movie has a strong emotional core with Grillo’s Roy attempting to connect with the son he never got to know. Played by his real-life son, Rio Grillo, the scenes with Roy and Joe building up a relationship over the course of many iterations of the time loop were quite affecting and provided a nice balance to the more ridicu-lous elements of the movie.
Director Joe Carnahan imbues the film with a slickness that complements some of the slap-stick action and his quirky ensemble of assassins reminds me of his previous movie, Smokin’ Aces and similar crime thrillers such as: Lucky Number Slevin and Seven Psychopaths. Mel Gibson leads the colourful assortment of killers, chewing the scenery as the ‘big boss’ waiting for Roy at the endgame. The film plays with stereotypes with a mix of familiar hitmen archetypes such as the Asian sword-mistress, the brutish idiot, the hick redneck and the stylish twins. The majority of these assassins are cannon fodder for Roy to dispatch (or be dispatched by) during the time loops, and aside from Selina Lo’s scene-stealing Guan Yin, they aren’t given much of a spotlight.
Boss Level has an infectious energy to it, most of which is due to Grillo’s strong central performance. He demonstrates an effortlessly cool sense of humour that rivals Ryan Reynolds’ own on-screen persona, but with a grittiness that gives him a nice edge. The film wisely leans into Grillo’s performance, often sidelining other members of the cast as a result. For example, Michelle Yeoh seems like an arbitrary addition to the mix and barely registers above a cameo and Naomi Watts also feels short-changed. Mel Gibson proves himself to be a nasty enough adversary for Roy to do battle with, but with the benefit of ‘unlimited lives’, there is no real tension to the plot until the very end. Unfortunately, the film ends quite abruptly on Amazon Prime, although some online snooping revealed that the Hulu version of the film has an extra scene that gives a lot more context to the ending. To be honest, the shortened ending on Amazon Prime is terrible and tries to add some ambiguity to events by ending things early, whereas I would have preferred the Hulu ending that gives a sense of Roy’s next adventure. In fact, it was such an error in judgment that I took off ½ a star from the review score because I found it so jarring and unsatisfying.
While Boss Level is clearly inspired by the ‘extra life’ concept behind most videogames, it doesn’t feel like a videogame brought to life in the same way that Free Guy did. There are some homages to the industry peppered throughout the movie, but tonally the film is actually more of a quirky crime thriller with a science-fiction twist. Sure, the film falters slightly if you focus on the plot too much, but the film’s momentum and the energy radiating off the actors keeps things moving along at a nice pace. Slick, flashy and full of fun, Boss Level is a wonderful showcase for Frank Grillo as a leading man, ably rising to the challenge and proving himself on par with the likes of popular A-listers like Chris Pratt, Ryan Reynolds and Chris Hemsworth. I will certainly be checking out more films from him in the future to see whether he maintains that same level of charisma in other roles. All in all, I really enjoyed this film and was surprised at just how much heart it had underneath all that frenetic action.