Unless you’re a fan of video games, particularly those of generations past, the term that inspires the title of Joe Carnahan’s latest action film, “Boss Level,” might be lost on you. That means you may not be familiar with the time spent playing a section of a video game over and over and over again (sometimes for hours on end), trying your damnedest to reach the final battle, only to be killed by the bad guy and forced to start once more at the beginning. Carnahan’s film, much like that feeling playing a side-scrolling video game from the past (“Contra,” “R-Type,” “Gradius,” and “Final Fight” are just several examples), is filled with action, repetition, and delightful mayhem. However, “Boss Level” has one thing those video games lack—Frank Grillo’s charisma. And it’s the star’s charm and overall presence on screen that turns what could have been a ho-hum, trope-filled murder-fest into an utterly enjoyable, surprisingly sweet action symphony.
“Boss Level” is an unabashed callback to the action films that used to be commonplace in the ‘80s and ‘90s. You have the charismatic, muscular lead that has to avenge some wrongdoing and save the day. But it goes one step further by introducing a time-loop plot device to the tried-and-true equation just to add a little spice to the macho, testosterone-packed dish. The film follows a retired special forces badass, Roy Pulver (Grillo), who finds himself stuck in a time-loop, repeating the same day dozens of times. What separates “Boss Level” from “Groundhog Day,” “Happy Death Day,” “Palm Springs,” and various other features that use a similar gimmick, is the fact that Roy’s repeated day consists of him outrunning and (hopefully) outgunning a cadre of colorful, (somewhat) silly assassins on his way to try to take on the big boss (Mel Gibson, who thankfully doesn’t have a ton of screen time).
While the story’s time-loop aspect might lead folks to roll their eyes, Carnahan uses the plot device to add some often hilarious gags to the film, usually consisting of the various ridiculous ways that Grillo’s character gets killed. Decapitation, explosions, harpoons-through-the-chest, and other gory, over-the-top demises often make the viewer simultaneously recoil and giggle with glee. In addition to the many, many deaths suffered by Roy Pulver (a great action name, by the way), the time-loop does offer a chance for “Boss Level” to explore other interesting threads, including some actual, honest to God character development, specifically with Roy’s estranged wife (Naomi Watts) and kid (Rio Grillo, Frank’s real-life son), that is sorely lacking from many of these sorts of flicks. Thankfully, Frank Grillo, who is no stranger to dramatic roles in addition to his action wheelhouse, has the acting chops to make these scenes believable and not hokey.
But you don’t go into a Joe Carnahan-directed film starring Frank Grillo expecting anything less than mind-blowing action. And for the most part, “Boss Level” delivers that in spades, thanks to the lead actor, who executes much of his own stunt work and fighting. The action also benefits from the director’s obvious trust in his cast and crew, allowing for scenes to play out in long takes, without quick cuts, extreme close-ups, and other shortcuts. This is a far cry from the “action” in “Taken,” for example. In that film, Liam Neeson says he has a particular set of skills. In “Boss Level,” Frank Grillo and the other folks involved prove those skills. And though the various assassins and side characters don’t offer much outside of their own surface-level gimmicks (a little person that uses explosives, an Asian woman that uses a sword, etc.), it’s the fighting and stunt work that almost always carries the load and makes up for the fact that you’ll likely not remember the names of the people involved (well, except for the sword lady, for reasons explained in the film).
“Boss Level” isn’t without its faults, however. The time-loop explanation is convoluted and goes out of its way to explain itself with heaps of pseudo-science exposition. We’re here to watch Frank Grillo kill people in gruesomely entertaining ways, so keep the explanations to a minimum, please. Also, yes, most of the humor does end up making you laugh, but with a lot of action-comedies (“Deadpool” might be the closest comparison), when you’re attempting to land a bunch of one-liners and R-rated action gags, they’re not all going to work. And when the jokes miss the mark in “Boss Level,” they can sometimes make you cringe. (Looking at you, Ken Jeong.)
Make no mistake, “Boss Level” isn’t here to win Oscars or break the action film mold. Quite the opposite, in fact. This film proudly wears its intentions on its sleeve and is content with not having a whole lot on its mind. What Carnahan and Grillo are obviously attempting to do here is remind viewers that action films don’t need much more than a decent enough plot, well-choreographed and amusing fights, and a charismatic star to lead the way. You would think that’s an easily attainable goal on paper, but countless, forgettable action films that range from boring to downright atrocious prove otherwise. So, when something like “Boss Level” comes around, and clears the bar with the utmost of ease, it’s almost startling and worthy of praise.
Rejoice action fans, Frank Grillo is here to save the action genre, and “Boss Level” proves that he has the goods to perhaps do just that. [B]
“Boss Level” arrives on Hulu on March 5.