Films based around time loops seem more prevalent in recent years than ever: whether done for dramatic purposes, to stimulate horror films, or just to be funny, stories of people trapped re-living the same day over and over seem to have growing appeal for filmmakers around the world. The Japanese seemed to get in early during the 1980s with films like The Girl Who Leapt Through Time (1983) and Urusei Yatsura 2 (1984), but for American audiences the first major example is likely Harold Ramis’ 1993 comedy Groundhog Day.
More recently, however, audiences have been bombarded with films including The Endless, Happy Death Day and its sequel, Koko-di Koko-da, Palm Springs, and The Map of Tiny Perfect Things. Even Netflix was in on the act with its streaming series Russian Doll. Basically, Joe Carnahan’s new circular action film Boss Level could not have come at a worse time. Its central schtick feels worn out before it even starts.
Roy Pulver (Frank Grillo) is a retired special forces soldier who wakes up with a man trying to kill him with a machete. When Roy is killed, he wakes up again in the same day. Through trial and error – and almost 150 attempts – he finds himself the target of multiple professional killers. Everything seems related to work undertaken by his wife (Naomi Watts) for a mysterious Colonel (Mel Gibson), but to find out the truth he must work his way to surviving the day – one death at a time.
Boss Level comes from director Joe Carnahan, whose previous work has jumped from serious thrillers (Narc, The Grey) to less serious action vehicles (The A-Team, Smokin’ Aces). Boss Level is very much in his second mode of film-making. There is an underlying narrative about top secret machines engineering to reshape history, but in all honesty it acts as an excuse for off-colour comedy and over-the-top murderous violence. For star Frank Grillo, it is an excellent opportunity for showcasing his comedic skills, which are considerable. He occupies an unenviable position in Hollywood, trapped by a celluloid ceiling that sees him either relegated to supporting roles in other people’s blockbusters (Captain America: The Winter Soldier) or only headlining action films up to a certain production value (The Purge sequels, or Boss Level). He deserves more; it seems perverse that his highest profile performance is likely in Wolf Warriors 2 – a Chinese blockbuster hardly anyone in America will have seen.
Structurally the film is messy as all hell, and its tone feels scattered all over the place, so ultimately the appeal of Boss Level boils down to how much one enjoys oddly imaginative death scenes, extravagant violence, and squirm-inducing torture played for laughs. The comedy here gets pitch-black, and the strength of the humour varies considerably from one moment to the next. Grillo is great. Michelle Yeoh has something resembling an extended cameo. Naomi Watts feels like she had a few weeks free and a desire to re-live her cult film days in Tank Girl and Children of the Corn IV. Mel Gibson is… well, Mel Gibson is Mel Gibson. He certainly operates with a fairly generic and gravelly tone in his dotage, which audiences are going to like or dislike, and his personal politics, racism, and antisemitism have already divided his fans from, well, everybody else. Your mileage is going vary.
Personally I found Boss Level something of a chore, generally favouring storytelling over adolescent violence, but it is absolutely clear from watching the film that it is going to have its fans – and enthusiastic fans at that. If you think you are one of those people, I suspect that you probably are. This is rock-solid puerile violence of the most excessive kind.