Monday, December 27, 2021

"Boss Level": review

Frank Grillo (L) as Roy Pulver faces off against Clive Ventor (Mel Gibson)

At the recommendation of normally cynical YouTube movie reviewer The Critical Drinker, I hunted down the movie "Boss Level," eventually finding it available as a Blu-ray. It's one of my happier Blu-ray purchases: "Boss Level" is good, stupid fun filled with "Zombieland"-style violence and gore overlaid with an 80s-era action-movie aura. Directed by Joe Carnahan (of "Smokin' Aces" fame) and starring action-movie workhorse Frank Grillo (who also produced this film), 2021's "Boss Level" had originally been intended for a 2019 release but, you know, pandemic. Grillo plays ex-Delta Force commando Roy Pulver (Pulver is German for "powder"; it's where we get the term pulverize), who has been sucked into a causality loop in the style of "Groundhog Day" or "Edge of Tomorrow." 

Every day, a little after 7 a.m., Pulver wakes up to an assassin with a machete who tries to kill both him and the hot blonde he'd been sleeping with the night before. Every time Pulver dies, the day resets, but as in "Groundhog Day" and "Edge of Tomorrow," Pulver retains his consciousness from life to life, which allows him to learn from his previous mistakes (as well as remember what various deaths feel like) and get further through each day by memorizing routines as a whole host of assassins descends upon him. 

As Pulver gets farther along with every attempt, he learns more about his situation: his ex-wife Jemma Wells (Naomi Watts) is a scientist working for ex-military heavy Clive Ventor (Mel Gibson, looking tired and a bit saggy); Jemma has been working on something called the Osiris Spindle, which will allow its user—presumably Ventor—to rewind time/causality and to reset history on a large scale. 

A major complication, though, is that repeated use of the spindle technology can fray the fabric of reality, threatening to bring about the end of the entire planet.  No one except Roy knows that Roy is living through causality-loops, though, so no one but Roy is aware the technology is actually working, and that Earth's demise is imminent. 

A major subplot of the film is Roy's discovery that Jemma's son Joe (Rio Grillo, Frank's real-life son, who turns out not to be bad as child actors go) has been skipping school to engage in video-game competitions. When Roy reaches a point where he has learned how to evade his various killers and have a breather, he takes advantage of this period of calm to reconnect with Joe, who doesn't know that Roy is his father.

How did Roy initially get sucked into the spindle's causality loop? Can he shut the whole thing down before the whole planet is destroyed? Will Roy ever have a chance at a normal life with his son, or is he doomed to evade assassins forever? And why are there assassins after him, anyway? To answer any of these questions is to spoil crucial parts of the movie, so I'll leave these questions aside and talk about other aspects of the film.

It should be noted that this is a genre-straddling action-comedy. "Boss Level" in no way takes itself seriously, except insofar as it explores Roy's relationship with his son, and to a lesser extent, with his ex-wife. Aside from those two possibly profound aspects of the movie, "Boss Level" doesn't intend to be anything other than a goofy action flick involving a lot of ultraviolence. Roy meets all manner of deaths: he's shot, stabbed, and beheaded any number of times. One of the funnier assassins is named Guan Yin (as the movie notes, Guan Yin is the name of a Chinese goddess of compassion—she is also, for what it's worth, in the Buddhist pantheon as a bodhisattva of compassion). Every time Guan Yin kills Roy, she triumphantly declares, "I am Guan Yin, and Guan Yin has done this." Ken Jeong has a minor role as a bartender; his best line, sounding an awful lot like something TJ Miller might say in "Deadpool," is "You look like Death taking a dump." So, no: this isn't a serious film.

Joe Carnahan brings his trademark ADHD sensibilities to the action genre; he's the perfect director to marry video-game concepts like respawning with action-movie tropes like blood and guts, thanks to his rapidfire editing and his eye for artistic carnage. This is the sort of movie that benefits when someone like Carnahan or Matthew Vaughn ("Kingsman," "Kick-Ass") or Ruben Fleischer ("Zombieland") is at the helm. You need someone who can combine violence and humor effectively.

The film is, in fact, suffused with dark humor as Roy dies again and again, and as Roy finds clever ways of dispatching his enemies, again and again. Some of the fight choreography is a little lame when it comes to swords, but the gunplay is entertaining enough, and Roy's attempts to reconnect with Joe provide the movie with a richer-than-expected emotional dimension. Michelle Yeoh makes an appearance as a champion swordswoman who teaches Roy how to handle a sword and hopefully defeat Guan Yin. She doesn't play a huge role, but I have to think that Yeoh was a good sport to lend her martial talents to this sort of movie.

If you're looking to turn your brain off for two hours, and you're into 80s-style throwback action flicks, "Boss Level" is the movie for you. Don't go in expecting world-shaking revelations (although the movie's ending might surprise you); don't expect to be moved to tears by actors acting their hearts out (although Grillo proves to have surprising range and comic timing). This is an action movie in the classic vein, with a hero fighting his way up the ladder to save the ones he loves (along with the planet), all while a time bomb ticks away. 

Actually, that last thing might be the movie's one major flaw: while we're told that repeated use of the spindle can fracture reality, we're never given a sense of how quickly or slowly that fracturing is occurring as Roy repeats his horrible day. So there's a ticking clock, of sorts, but we don't know how fast it's ticking. Luckily, the script provides enough tension in other areas to make up for this problem, which is ultimately more of a minor nitpick than a huge flaw in the story. Watch "Boss Level" with my blessing.

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