Trapped in a never-ending time loop that always ends with his inevitable (and usually brutal) death, former special agent Roy Pulver (Frank Grillo) is beyond frustrated. Constantly hunted by contract killers, he has no idea why he seems to have a target on his back—or why he must keep reliving the experience. When he discovers that a secret government organization led by Colonel Ventor (Mel Gibson) seems to have the answers about his fate, he both must outrun the ruthless assassins who relentlessly pursue him and attempt to save his ex-wife (Naomi Watts) before the clock runs out… again…
Directed by Joe Carnahan, Boss Level is a ridiculous and free-wheeling cacophony of bullets, blood and bad guys that fires on all cylinders from start to finish.
It’s also ridiculously fun.
Pumped up on 70s rock music, the film feels like the delicious result of throwing Groundhog Day, John Wick and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World into a blender and hitting the ‘puree’ button. Though the action is intense and graphic, this ‘ode-to-video games’ runs at full speed with a sardonic wink and never takes itself too seriously. Known for such actioners as Smokin’ Aces and The A-Team, Carnahan has made a career out of his ability to balance comedy and violence and that skill is on full display here. With every repetition, Carnahan understands that variations are needed to keep the audience interested and he make subtle tweaks in each encounter to show Roy’s growth and his increasing ability to defeat the endless parade of adversaries in his way.
As the film’s central core, this is also a film that rests solely on the muscular shoulders of veteran actor Frank Grillo, who truly shines in the role of the loveable anti-hero. Though likely best well-known for his role as Crossbones in the Marvel films, Grillo has mostly languished away in B-movies and secondary characters for some time. While Boss Level may not necessarily be a high-profile film, it certainly provides him the opportunity to establish himself as a legitimate action star and he makes the most of his chance. Attacking the set-pieces with intensity, he exudes a mix of frustrated brokenness and rogue-ish charm here that shows the talent he truly possesses as a leading man. (If anything, the only disappointment in the cast is Gibson who, through no fault of his own, is given very little to do other than sit behind a desk and be ‘bad’.)
Revenge films can be somewhat ridiculous in nature—let’s not forget that John Wick is really about a man seeking vengeance for the death of his puppy—and Carnahan knows it. As a result, he leans into the playfulness of the gaming concept with a glee that we haven’t seen in his work for some time. Without an established IP or any particularly expectations of his audience, Carnahan manages to avoid the traps that so often hinder other ‘gaming’ films and simply lets the viewer enjoy the ride. With green pixelated graphic cards, increasing ‘leveling up’ for our hero and wild character physicality, Boss Level fully understands the digital world that it seeks to emulate and it does so with enthusiasm. Violent, irreverent and repetitive, each victory feels like an accomplishment, even if it usually results in Ray’s death with a more difficult adversary. (In fact, the film feels so much like a video game that one almost expects to hear a voice-over to demand that he ‘finish him’ as each boss is defeated.)
Even so, underneath the gunshots and swordplay, it’s worth noting that Boss Level does have a soul. While his endless ‘respawns’ help him learn how to defeat his foes, his character begins to recognize that revenge feels incomplete. Having lost the woman he loved and their son due to his past mistakes some time ago, there’s a sadness that plagues Ray. Even though his bloody vengeance provides an outlet for his rage, it is unable to fill the void in his soul. As a result, without giving any spoilers, there comes a point where Ray recognizes that the best use of his repetitive life is to level up as a person, as opposed to his warrior skills. This shift in perspective also allows him the freedom to recognize that the nature of true victory in this world of never-ending bloodshed lies in the relationships that we have as opposed to the bosses we defeat.
With a refreshing sense of silliness and fun, Boss Level is an entertaining night for any action fan. Carnahan and Grillo have created a world that carries an old-school gaming mentality yet never loses its humanity. Underneath the violence and insanity, there’s a beating heart to the film that keeps it from losing its way.
So, put my quarter on the bottom of the screen. I’m ready to play again.
Boss Level streams on Hulu on Friday, March 5th, 2021.