Joe Carnahan's 'Boss Level' is basically the 'Commando' of 'Groundhog Day' knockoffs, trapping a gristly tough guy with immaculate hair in a repeating cycle of death, as he's forced to relive his own inevitable murder, over and over again, while slaughtering endless baddies. It's a reasonably clever spin on decades old theme but, once the novelty of the genre swap wears off, not much more than that.
Roy Pulver (Frank Grillo, 'Avengers: Endgame') wakes up every morning to be killed by an army of quirky assassins in a variety of ways. He's either riddled with bullets from a gatling gun attached to a helicopter, blown up by a dwarf, beheaded by a 'Kill Bill'-esque swordsman (Selina Lo, with her catchphrase of "I am Guan-Yin, and Guan-Yin has done this!" is a highlight), impaled by a harpoon, or shot by Hitler's gun, before it starts all over again for reasons he doesn't understand. If he survives long enough, he has a few beers at the diner owned by his pal, Chef Jake (Ken Jeong, 'Occupation: Rainfall'). But, inevitably, Roy is offed.
A former Delta Force member, Roy needs to work out how he became trapped in this repeating loop in time and space, how he can save his scientist ex-wife (Naomi Watts, 'Penguin Bloom') and 11-year-old son, and what an evil military scientist named Ventor (Mel Gibson, 'Fatman', 'Dragged Across Concrete'), wants with some gadget called The Osiris Spindle. That's if he can save himself from being beheaded by Guan-Yin yet again.
As in just about every interpretation of this live-die-repeat scenario, the fun lies in how the unlucky schmuck will cope with his predicament. 'Boss Level' is similar to 'Happy Death Day' and 'Source Code' in that its hero goes from confusion to panic to problem-solving determination to sardonic indifference to hard-won enlightenment. Roy attempts to use his multiple lives to solve his own murder, wiping out potential killers through the process of elimination (including his own), but its a pretty half-arsed whodunnit. There is no real energy invested towards the identification of suspects (non-spoiler alert: it's Ventor) or red herrings.
Carnahan has been obsessed with tough guys throughout his entire career as a filmmaker. In his best work, he deconstructs them (as in 'The Grey' and 'Narc'). In his less impressive films, he turns them into cartoons ('Smokin' Aces', 'Stretch'). His latest film falls into the latter and anyone who plays video games will understand the phrase 'Boss Level' instantly. It's the ultimate boss, the highest and toughest level of difficulty in a fighting game. As Grillo journeys towards the truth, his opponents become more difficult to eliminate. There's grenade launchers, assault weapons, over-the-top kills, hand-to-hand combat, car chases, and dollops of humour and heart. It's little more than a flurry of vivid images, glued together by the weathered mug and croaky voice of Frank Grillo.
It's little more than a flurry of vivid images, glued together by the weathered mug and croaky voice of Frank Grillo.
What Carnahan doesn't seem to have considered is that the very concept of the video game boss is on its last legs. Bosses were effectively bottlenecks at a time when games were expanding. Open world and online games are flourishing, player choice has become paramount, and boss fights in games that felt otherwise wide open - like the notoriously underwhelming boss confrontations in otherwise acclaimed games such as 'Bioshock' or 'Deus Ex: Human Revolution' - now feel like dead weight.
At first glance, 'Boss Level' feels like the cinematic equivalent of the video game regression that I've just described. Peer closer and there is a trace of something more mature and critical buried underneath all the self-aware extremeness and nostalgic action. A more cerebral director could probably tease out some existential questions from such a familiar genre, but Carnahan leans on the easy cheat codes of brighter lights and louder noises.
In trying to finally make it to tomorrow, will Roy become a better dad, a better ex-husband, a better version of himself? Max Barbakow recently wrung this ingenious conceit for everything it was worth with 'Palm Springs'. All a diverting riff like 'Boss Level' can do is throw a gatling gun in with a few sword fights, which makes it inchoate, but mostly fun.