REVIEW – ‘Boss Level’ is an energetic tribute to the glory days of 8-bit arcade games

After struggling through almost a decade of development hell, co-writer/director Joe Carnahan‘s vision of making Groundhog Day as an action film is finally here. A passion project Carnahan and actor Frank Grillo has been desperately attempting to get off the ground since late 2012, Boss Level is a video game-like twist on the age-old time-loop genre. You’re probably rolling your eyes at the thought of another entry in this overused conceit (especially after Palm Springs shattered the mould last year), but this unashamedly violent and occasionally hilarious riot is actually pretty damn fun.

While it doesn’t exactly re-invent the concept seen in similar films like Edge of Tomorrow, Looper, and Source Code, Boss Level brings something fresh to the table by virtue of instilling the film with video game sensibilities that will undoubtedly delight hardcore gamers. Loaded with lashings of blood, violence, and cheeky one-liners, it’s an energetic tribute to the glory days of 8-bit arcade games and a perfect vehicle for Grillo to showcase his terrific action hero qualities.

Grillo plays Roy Pulver, a retired special forces captain whose dedication to his job (and the bottle) cost him the love of his life, Jemma (Naomi Watts) and his young son, Joe (Rio Grillo), who has spent his entire life in the dark about his father’s identity. Through an unknown twist in time, Roy is stuck repeating the same day over and over again. And it’s the day from absolute hell.

When we first meet Roy, he’s on “attempt 139” in endeavouring to survive an onslaught of murderous assassins all hellbent on killing their bewildered target through a variety of outlandish methods. While Roy has perfected the art of surviving through most of the morning, he’s never made it beyond 12:47 pm. That’s the moment he sits down for a drink at a local diner, run by sarcastic Chef Jake (Ken Jeong), and the entire group of villains ambush him.

As we flashback to the previous day, we learn Jemma works as a scientist for the nefarious Colonel Clive Ventor (Mel Gibson) on the top-secret project called The Osiris Spindle, which likely has something to do with Roy’s current plight. When Roy realises his ex’s villainous boss may hold the answers to ending the time loop, he’ll have to battle his way through each assassin in his bid to infiltrate the Colonel’s well-guarded base.

The entire structure of Boss Level is essentially that of a video game where Roy continually reaches a difficult obstacle that leads to his death, causing him to look for solutions to make his next attempt more successful. Much like a video game player, Roy acutely remembers everything he’s experienced through each venture and uses that knowledge to his advantage. Whether it’s knowing the exact timing to avoid a speeding bus or the particular movements of an attacking helicopter, Roy has clearly learnt a thing or two after experiencing this day over 100 times.

Carnahan’s screenplay (co-written with Chris Borey and Eddie Borey) crafts a cavalcade of eccentric enemies for Roy to face off against including Pam (Meadow Williams), a gunslinger sporting an antique Nazi pistol; a little person with a penchant for explosives who Roy nicknames Kaboom (Aaron Beelner); a redneck named Smiley (Michael Tourek) whose kill style is particularly brutal; and Guan Yin (Selina Lo), a ruthless swordswoman whose seemingly unbeatable with her trusty samurai sword. Guan proves particularly difficult for Roy to overcome, leading him to turn to 12-time world champion swordfighter Dai Feng (a terrific cameo from Michelle Yeoh) for additional training.

Each of these deadly enemies dispatches Roy in all manner of imaginatively brutal methods including (but not limited to) death by decapitation, explosion, stabbing, car accidents, and, of course, several dozen rounds of bullets. Carnahan pulls no punches in making these scenes as bloody, violent, and amusing as possible, echoing the black comedy of films like Deadpool and Happy Death Day. He’s a filmmaker who clearly understands his audience well and he’s more than happy to serve up everything they’re lusting for.

At the centre of all this mayhem is Grillo, who deftly proves he’s an underrated action star able to lead a blockbuster film with the right balance of grit and humour. The entire film is elevated by Roy’s dry, self-referential narration that highlights Grillo’s untapped comedic timing. Looking every bit as muscular as Hugh Jackman in Logan, Grillo smashes his way through action sequences and chews every piece of scenery he can get his hands on. Grillo also impressively handles Roy’s more emotional beats in the third act when Joe enters the narrative, which is clearly helped by the fact the role is played by his real-life son.

Gibson is the perfect choice for a cartoonish, Bond-style villain who pontificates while delivering a monologue about a snake eating a wild boar with a huge cigar stuck in his mouth. The supporting cast of oddball characters are a hoot, particularly Jeong, who brings his typical wise-cracking sarcasm to a small role. If there’s a weak link in the chain, it’s surprisingly Watts, who is dreadfully miscast as Roy’s love interest and struggles through a sketchy British accent that may or may not be a conscious choice. There’s a noticeable lack of chemistry between Grillo and Watts and their romance fails to add anything to the narrative.

The action set-pieces are all grand in scale and crafted with terrific stunt work from fight choreographer Bryan Sloyer. While Carnahan impressively attempts physical filmmaking as much as possible, there’s plenty of garish CGI work that exposes this film’s inescapable low budget values. The bulk of that budget appears to have been spent on the elaborate production designs of Jon Billington, which are surprisingly spectacular and provide a bevy of great locations for the action sequences.

Action films are hardly known for their great scripts, and there’s a whole swag of stilted, awkward dialogue for the actors to deliver here. And, given its sci-fi conceit, there’s also plenty of nonsensical exposition gobbledegook that needs to be delivered to explain the inner workings of The Osiris Spindle. Sharp dialogue is not really what you came for, but Carnahan still knows how to write a great one-liner, which are mostly gifted to Grillo to drop at just the right time. At one point, he slyly remarks, “I could do this all day,” which is naturally a quite literal observation. But the Marvel nerd in me likes to believe it’s a dry reference to Grillo’s appearance in Captain America: The Winter Soldier.

It all wraps up with an ending that will surely prove divisive. Personally, it left me extremely unsatisfied and with a decidedly bitter taste in my mouth after such a giddy good time. It’s ultimately a minor quibble in a film that genuinely revels in its own outlandishness. While the time-loop concept has been done to death and there’s plenty here you’ve seen before, Boss Level still stands on its own two feet with its retro throwback to video games of yesteryear. Grillo leads this film with tremendous gusto and charisma and it’s easy to switch off your brain and just enjoy the silly, ridiculous chaos Carnahan has cooked up.

Distributor: Hulu/Rialto Distribution
Cast: Frank Grillo, Mel Gibson, Naomi Watts, Annabelle Wallis, Ken Jeong, Will Sasso, Selina Lo, Meadow Williams, Michelle Yeoh
Director: Joe Carnahan
Producers: Joe Carnahan, Frank Grillo, Randall Emmett, George Furla
Screenplay: Chris Borey, Eddie Borey, Joe Carnahan
Cinematography: Juan Miguel Azpiroz
Production Design: Jon Billington
Costume Design: Jayna Mansbridge
Editor: Kevin Hale
Music: Clinton Shorter

Running Time: 100 minutes
Release Date: 5th March 2021 (U.S.), 25th February 2021 (Australia)