Imagine if Phil Connors, the caddish weatherman Bill Murray played in 'Groundhog Day', never broke his karmic loop and just kept waking up on the 2nd of February for the rest of eternity, even after getting every detail of his one and only day just right. That's kind of what it feels like to watch one of the countless variations on the 1993 comedy; since they already perfected the premise, isn't returning to it over and over and over again kind of pointless? Joe Carnahan's 'Boss Level' is basically the 'Commando' of 'Groundhog Day' knockoffs, trapping a bristling, muscular tough guy in a repeating cycle of death, as he's forced to relive his own inevitable murder in perpetuity while gunning down endless baddies. It's a reasonably clever spin, but not much more than that; once the novelty of the genre swap wears off, you're just watching another variation on a well-trodden theme.
Roy Pulver (Frank Grillo, 'Avengers: Endgame') is having an unusual mid-life crisis. He wakes up every morning to be slaughtered 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 - and over and over again for reasons he doesn't understand. If he survives long enough, he has a beer or two at the diner owned by Chef Jake (Ken Jeong, 'Occupation: Rainfall'). But, inevitably, Roy is slain.
A former Delta Force member, Roy needs to figure out why he's stuck 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 something called The Osiris Spindle. He seems to have become an unwitting part of Ventor's plan to use this powerful machine and must work out how. That's if he can save himself from being killed again.
As in just about every version of this life-on-repeat scenario, the fun lies in how the cosmically cursed will cope with his predicament. 'Boss Level' falls in line with films like 'Happy Death Day' and 'Source Code' in allowing its hero to experience a range of responses, from confusion to panic to problem-solving determination to sardonic indifference to inevitable enlightenment. If there's one productive tweak to formula in the screenplay, it's the way 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 as a whodunnit, the movie is pretty half-arsed, investing zero energy in the identification of suspects (it's Ventor) and red herrings.
Carnahan has had a career-long preoccupation with genre archetypes and man-of-action machismo - sometimes deconstructed (as in 'The Grey' and 'Narc'), sometimes cartooned out of proportion ('Smokin' Aces', 'Stretch'). His latest film falls into the latter - 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. Grillo definitely has to jump a lot of hoops to get to the truth, and his opponents become harder and harder to eliminate. There's grenade launchers, assault weapons, over-the-top kills, hand-to-hand combat, car chases, humour, heart, and a strong dash of action coolness. It's little more than a series of wild twists and turns and a barrage of imagery, all held together by the angular, grizzled face and croaky voice of Frank Grillo, perpetual contender for the America's Hard-Bitten Badarse Award (he needs to play a private eye in some kind of hardboiled noir film in his immediate future).
It's little more than a series of wild twists and turns and a barrage of imagery, all held together by the angular, grizzled face and croaky voice of Frank Grillo, perpetual contender for the America's Hard-Bitten Badarse Award.
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 this video game regression; on closer examination, one can see the outline of something more mature and critical - something about the myth of the action hero - buried underneath all the self-aware outrageousness and nostalgic '80s-style action sequences. Perhaps a more sensitive director (say, Max Barbakow of 'Palm Springs' fame) could pack more existential questions and a spirit of philosophical inquiry into such a familiar genre, but Carnahan leans on the easy cheat codes of bigger explosions.
Of course, at its core, the model is still the Phil Connors self-improvement plan. In trying to finally make it to tomorrow, will Roy become a better father, a better ex-husband, a better version of himself? 28 years ago, Murray and writer/director Harold Ramis wrung this ingenious conceit for everything it was worth. All a diverting riff like 'Boss Level' can do is throw a few sword fights and bazookas in with the recycled pleasures and hope they look like its own. It's inchoate, but mostly fun.