Add another entry to the time loop directory with Joe Carnahan’s Boss Level arriving as this month’s installment of what feels like a regular ritual these days. It’s not socially relevant like The Obituary of Tunde Johnson, emotionally poignant like Before I Fall, genre-bending like Happy Death Day, or irreverently subversive like Palm Springs, but it is entertaining. This is especially true for fans (like me) of the director’s Smokin’ Aces since that’s the title this latest work most closely resembles whether by way of its frenetic pacing, eccentric criminals, or blunt yet quick-witted humor. With sardonic narration dripping with the frustration that comes from constantly waking up to deadly assassins ensuring death arrives before 1:00pm each day, it never tries to be something it’s not.
That narrator is Roy Pulver (Frank Grillo)—a former covert military operative who finds himself growing bored of the precisely choreographed dance he’s perfected to survive a machete-wielding human alarm clock and the helicopter-mounted Gatling gun hovering outside his window for good measure. The years he’s devoted to Uncle Sam at the detriment of his relationship with Jemma Wells (Naomi Watts) and a son (his real-life boy Rio Grillo’s Joe) who only knows him as “Mom’s boyfriend” rather than “Dad” have turned him jaded enough to wonder what matters now that he’s a civilian again, so saving his skin to just end up dying anyway leaves him with a nihilistic taste in his mouth two bottles of Chef Jake’s (Ken Jeong) best booze help to remove each “run.”
I say “run” because Carnahan and original cowriters Chris Borey and Eddie Borey intentionally turn Roy’s repetitive existence into a videogame for him to quite literally perform speed runs through. Sometimes he misses his mark on a “frame perfect” maneuver that inevitably leads to his painful demise and sometimes he surprises himself by getting through things so efficiently that he ends up taking a new detour he never thought about pursuing before. Even with the odd diversion, however, the whole experience has gotten rote to the point of giving his rogue’s gallery of killers on his tail names like Mr. Good Morning (Buster Reeves), Pam (Meadow Williams’ high-speed chase sniper), Roy #2 (Eric Etebari’s spitting image), and The German Twins (Quinton ‘Rampage’ Jackson and Rashad Evans).
The only characters with actual names are Guan Yin (I’ll let Selina Lo’s superb tongue-in-cheek delivery explain why), the subtly named Brett Dynow (Will Sasso), and Colonel Clive Ventor (Mel Gibson, whose inclusion will be enough for some to avoid the film altogether and thus warrants me saying the filmmakers’ give him a quip about not “bringing race into it” as though that could ever seem like a good idea). The reasons Roy knows the latter two names is because they have something to do with what’s happened and thus become targets for his revenge (both for himself and Jemma once a flashback sheds light on a few more details). Don’t think that makes them more important than Rob Gronkowski’s unnamed gunner, though. Every baddie is thinly drawn.
That fact isn’t as much a slight as it is a truth since Boss Level doesn’t pretend these antagonists need to be anything more than placeholders for Roy to rip through. They are here to force his hand, light a fire, and either die in inventive ways or say something that makes his death more fun. In the end Roy is both the hero and the “boss” because it’s up to the man he used to be to rise up and conquer the unreliable drunk he’s become to save the people he loves. That means learning new skills (Michelle Yeoh receives about five minutes of screen time as master swordswoman Dai Feng) and making up for lost time with Joe. The rest is pure, adrenaline-fueled carnage.
The result is obviously not as smart as Groundhog Day or Edge of Tomorrow, but Carnahan and company do their best to take elements from each to create a serviceable enough backbone for us to care about whether Roy succeeds. That the heartfelt time spent with Joe goes idealistically smooth, however, doesn’t mean it isn’t necessary to the plot since Roy demands every bit of motivation he can find to turn off cruise control and figure out what (if anything) he can do to escape this loop. His relishing the ability to massacre the people who’ve massacred him over one-hundred times is therefore only human and just as enjoyable for us to watch. We need that base-level, carnal involvement because there’s not much more to the narrative otherwise.
It’s thus a violent lark playing fast and loose with its science fiction so Grillo can have a blast. He’s on-screen the entire runtime (besides when the camera highlights his murderer gloating over his body) and shows why he’s so effective at both action and drama (see Carnahan’s The Grey for even better evidence). Since his Roy is already fully versed in his fate before we enter, he’s also allowed to treat everything with humor. That means a dejected sigh when realizing a gun is at his head or an excited smile when he’s finally ready to take out someone he hadn’t yet been good enough to beat. Grillo is Double Dragon‘s Billy and Jimmy Lee in one, scrolling through his levels until victory is all that remains.
Boss Level streams exclusively on Hulu starting March 5.