Principal Cast : Frank Grillo, Mel Gibson, Naomi Watts, Michelle Yeoh, Will Sasso, Annabelle Wallis, Rob Gronkowski, Ken Jeong, Mathilde Ollivier, Selina Lo, Quinton Jackson, Rashad Evans, Meadow Willliams, Sheaun McKinney, Aaron Beelner, Rio Grillo.
Synopsis: A retired special forces officer is trapped in a never ending time loop on the day of his death.
The belated arrival of Joe Carnahan’s long-in-the-can Boss Level, starring Frank Grillo, Naomi Watts, and Mel Gibson in full-throated gravelly-voiced villainy, is a thing to savour. It’s the kind of film that’s been presented as one thing by all the marketing materials, and delivers an entirely different thing – not altogether displeasing, it must be said – to the viewer in a manner that’s purely Carnahan-esque. After all, this is the director who gave us the Smokin’ Aces duology (where’s my threequel, Joe?), the batshit insane The A-Team, and 2014’s incredibly underrated and underseen Stretch: the man knows how to turn a film into a party, and boy does he trump his previous efforts with Boss Level. This film is a bloody, and bloody clever, thing of beauty.
Former special forces operative Roy Pulver (Frank Grillo, who also produces) is living his own private Groundhog Day. He wakes every morning being attacked by a dedicated collection of assassins, all intent on taking him out. Each time he dies, he returns to life the next morning, waking up next to a beautiful woman (Annabelle Wallis) whilst he’s being attacked. As each day progresses, Roy begins to understand that what is happening to him has been caused by his ex-wife, scientist Jemma Wells (Naomi Watts), who has created some kind of time portal machine named the Osiris Spindle, under the purview of dastardly businessman Colonel Clive Ventor (Mel Gibson) and Ventor’s henchman Brett (comedian Will Sasso). As he progresses through learning about the continued time loop he exists in, Roy also befriends his estranged son, Joe (played by Grillo’s real-life son Rio), whilst repeatedly encountering the same events and encounters over and over again. Hoping to escape, Roy must separate himself from the drunken sourpuss he has become and remember what it was like to have a family.
At first blush you’d have to think Boss Level was made for Michael Bay money. A hundred-mil film easily. It’s got action, stunts, explosions, cool dialogue, a cooler central character, brilliant villains, and a plot to make your mind become quite literally a pretzel. Surprisingly, Boss Level clocks in with barely half that money to spend, although you’d never know it: Carnahan creates a tornado of a movie, an action film that delights in conspicuously glorious violence, a sci-fi canvas upon which his incredibly well edited and acted B-movie delivers twists, turns and a boatload of cementing Frank Grillo as one of the premium screen action heroes of the decade. This is a hilarious, startlingly entertaining movie from start to finish, operating as a meta-video game aesthetic that sprinkles a lot of cheerily familiar genre tropes as it pummels you into a writhing ball of excitement.
Written by Carnahan alongside Chris and Eddie Borey, Boss Level throws us right into the deep end from the get-go by having Grillo’s hard-bitten special forces character, Roy, having to escape utterly an improbable and implausible onslaught of assassins out to kill him. The opening sequence repeats and repeats until we learn that for some reason, Roy is living in his own bizarre Groundhog Day (a fact nobody in the film even bothers to mention, one of the only true disappointments in an otherwise highly engaging story) that never seems to end. As each new timeline starts, Roy regales us with the fact that he never quite seems to make it past a certain time of the day, at a seedy dive bar on the opposite side of town, until flashbacks start to reveal that Roy’s ex-wife Jemma has developed a secret that probably has something to do with what’s going on. The crux of the film leans heavily into the Macguffin of Macguffins, the obscurely postulated Osiris Spindle, something Mel Gibson’s quite mental villain, Ventor, has a hard-on for. We never really learn what the Osiris Spindle is other than it affects time using Roy’s hair (yeah), but its so cool that of course it has to have some kind of self-destruct mechanism that forces our hero to have to make a captial-D decision by the end. The script is one of those “peel back the layers” kind of efforts, refusing to tell its story straightforward when it can slowly, ever so slowly, reveal its hidden secrets as the movie progresses, using the time-jump mechanism to reveal alternative plot threads that coalesce cleverly at the end. In this way, we find things out as Roy does, making his arc and the film’s manic plot quite the emotional ride by the time the end credits come to play.
Easily making the film an order of magnitude better than it ought to be, director Carnahan populates the film with a gaggle of well known faces, most of whom get that they’re in on this patently ridiculous joke of a film premise and play it up for all it’s worth. Grillo aside, Mel Gibson has an absolute blast as Ventor, scowling and snarling through a pretty 1-dimensional villain role, whilst Will Sasso augments the hilarity of it all by doing his best Number 2 impression as Ventor’s right-hand-man. Cameos to Meadow Williams, UFC champion Quinton “Rampage” Jackson, four-time Superbowl champion NFL player Rob Gronkowski, and French model-turned-actress Mathilde Ollivier (Overlord) as some of the assassins sent to kill Roy, make for delightfully witty sidebar elements, while Ken Jeong pops up as a barkeep, Annabelle Wallis as somebody Roy is sleeping with, and Michelle Yeoh as a master swordswoman; there’s more than enough star power in even this B-movie to keep the audience chuckling and chortling. Arguably it’s Selina Lo, as the katana-wielding assassin Guan Yin, who has the most fun, going one-on-one with Grillo and turning her one-joke character into something worthwhile. It’s also worth mentioning that, despite my general disdain for fathers putting their sons in their own films (ahem, After Earth!), Grillo’s young son, Rio, puts in a captivating performance as Roy’s recalcitrant but kind-hearted lad Joe.
Of course the film wouldn’t be as perfectly fun as it is without Frank Grillo’s charming leading man performance. Grillo isn’t quite the household name of, say, a Jason Statham or Liam Neeson or Keanu Reeves, despite deserving it entirely. Grillo, probably best known to casual film audiences as Crossbones from the Marvel Cinematic Universe, has had a career of stellar proportions since his debut in the early 1990’s. Roles in Minority Report, the little-seen Hunter franchise, Edge Of Darkness, The Grey (again with Carnahan), Warrior and End of Watch have had him firmly in the “hey, I know that face” guys around Hollywood for ages. Only recently has he started taking on leading roles, in The Purge films, Beyond Skyline, Wheelman, the ghastly Point Blank remake, and others, that have put him firmly in contention as an action star, despite almost nobody knowing who he is. This has bothered me for a while: Grillo has the action chops, sure, but he can also act when the script calls for it. You might not expect dramatic heavyweights to come calling, but Grillo pulls out a nice emotive performance during Boss Level’s heavier moments. It’s not all showboating and grandstanding: Boss Level has some smarts to offer as well.
The combination of a ludicrous screenplay, a willing cast with dynamite performances, and an overload of wanton violence make for heady escapist entertainment. Joe Carnahan delivers on all fronts, expertly leaping from the sublime to the ridiculous in mere moments, yet still maintaining an exacting control of the claptrap he’s asking us to swallow. Boss Level is a facepunch of gore and death, but it’s also a nicely tuned family drama of sorts, which plays out betwixt and between the explosions and random kill sequences. The editing by Kevin Hale…. dude, it’s an awesome, frantic formula of blood, speed and bullets, set to Clinton Shorter’s dynamic score and some quite cool music numbers. That the film was shot in under a month is astonishing – the financial issues faced by Carnahan and Grillo, who both produce alongside Scott Putman, cannot be understated, being forced to cut their shoot time nearly in half just prior to production starting – because it rarely looks like it was made for less than $100m. A few of the explosions and some of the physical gore shots do look a touch hinky here and there, but the film moves so fast and does so much with very little you get swept along with it all so you don’t really care.
Boss Level isn’t the film you get from the trailer. Far cleverer, far more effective than the marketing department indicates, Boss Level is overly violent and gleefully debauched when required, but balanced out by a significantly decent emotional counterweight that legitimately surprises. I loved it, I had a great time, Grillo is great and Carnahan’s direction absolutely delivers the goods. You’d be a fool to miss Boss Level.