There’s something about that type of movie where a character is trapped reliving a single day that lends itself utterly to a film that heavily riffs on the tics and rules of a video game – after all, when you fuck up your timing while leaping to a platform or a villain gets the drop on you, don’t you simply respawn back where you started from without a scratch, cursed to start all over again from the same “save point”?
It’s a storytelling tactic made popular by Groundhog Day and adopted by other such shows and movies as Russian Doll and Happy Death Day, but arguably one of the best instances is the Tom Cruise slaughtering Edge Of Tomorrow, who’s time warping shenanigans feels most akin to respawning in the middle of enemy territory – but if you were to fuse this to other movies that explore the further traits of video games, you would most likely get Joe Carnahan’s Boss Level, an action movie with an unabashed adoration for the world of 8-bit adventures.
Retired soldier Roy Pulver has been reliving the exact same day for a while now, which would be worrying enough on it’s own but every morning, at 7.00am on the dot, he’s woken by an assasin who tries to give him a spirited wake up call with a machete. Once dispatched, Roy then has to deal with a heavily armed helicopter turning up that strafes his apartment with a regularly you could set your watch by and even if he makes it past that, he has an entire gang of colourful murderers on his tail with orders to make him as lifeless as roadkill, no matter what. Needless to say, Roy’s never made it past lunch time, but every time one of the freakish assassins manages to take him down he wakes up right at the beginning of the day only to have to go through the entire experience all over again and Roy is starting to get burnt out over the entire experience.
Willing to except this fate of dying and respawning endlessly in this form of limbo with a side of gratuitous violence, Roy finally finds a reason to try and puzzle things out after a chance meeting with his young son gives him the oomph to alter his destiny and start literally fighting back against his fate.
But where to start? Well, the fact that his ex-wife, Jenna, works for a tyrannical Colonal on a top secret science project dubbed the Osiris Spindle seems as good as place as any and after some brutal trial and error, Roy starts to piece together his place as a piece in this temporal puzzle, but at the same time he starts to long for his wife and their son who has been raised to think Roy is merely a friend of the family. Can Roy avoid the gaggle of killer freaks on his tail long enough while getting to the bottom of his reality warping personal troubles?
Joe Carnahan’s career has always been enjoyably all over the place, zig-zagging between grim and gritty thrillers such as Narc or the wolf punching antics of The Grey to more cartoonish action comedies like The A-Team or Copshop, but with Boss Level, the director goes as wild as he ever has before.
Starting somewhere in the middle of Roy’s time scrambling adventure, Carnahan trusts the audience to know the basic rules of the game and flings us headlong into the hectic, opening moments of his overfamilar morning as our hero’s weary voiceover fills in the blanks. We’ve got to the point where Roy has memorized every part of the day to the point where he can vanquish his earlier foes purely by muscle memory alone but has become “stuck”, unable to proceed any further in his day no matter what route he takes. It’s a situation any gamer is horribly familiar with and like any frustrated player, has opted out, choosing to hang out in a diner and get drunk until any one of the assasins manages to track him down. It’s this clever weaving of gamer culture directly into the plot that allows Boss Level to stand shoulder to shoulder with other movies that homage the culture such as Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World and Hardcore Henry and it once again proves the point that movies that base their concepts on the actual rules of video game genres instead of video game properties themselves almost always prove to be overwhelming superior.
Carnahan starts strong, assaulting us with numerous, darkly humorous scenes of Roy meeting a gruesome end with the appropriate, cartoonish glee such a concept demands, but once the movie has had it’s fun, annihilating its lead like a something out of particularly nasty Daffy Duck short, Boss Level levels up into something surprisingly sweet as our grizzled hero starts to look beyond getting drunk between deaths and actually make some changes that matter. It’s here that the casting of Frank Grillo (surely cinema’s most needlessly underrated action hero) really paid off as his ability to be genuinely tough, bitter and vengeful is balanced by the fact that he can do prat falling comedy with the best of them and has a natural connection his his more sensitive side as he finally starts to build a relationship with his son (played by Grillo’s actual kid) as the bond over – what else – playing video games.
If there’s a slight glitch with Boss Level, is that the movie covers Toy’s plight so well, you kind of want the story to give us more of an insight to some of the characters that drift around his bloody orbit. Take Michelle Yeoh’s glorified cameo as a sword expert, or Ken Jeong typically mouthy restraint owner, or any of the assasins, who could have benefited from the kind of stylish ensemble Carnahan displayed in Smokin’ Aces rather than the occasional running gag. Similarly, Mel Gibson’s loquacious villain doesn’t get to perform some of the grand standing, eyeball rolling we know the actor is capable of, but, on the other hand, it’s tough to complain when Frank Grillo is given so much space to work his awesome, grizzled magic.
The action is glib, but still carries weight and the explanation behind Joe’s predicament is pure, pulpy sci-fi guff, but this spirited action flick utilizes its surpisingly poignant heart to a winning effect as it cleverly sneaks it through thecunder cover of belly laugh inducing brutality.
While hardly earth shattering, Boss Level nevertheless brings all the action, laughs and sci-fi tomfoolery necessary for a great night out (or should that be “in”, considering it fell victim to the streaming wars) and pays a tremendous homage to video games… like a boss.