Boss Level review: An action-packed thriller
James R | On 14, Aug 2021
Director: Joe Carnahan
Cast: Frank Grillo, Naomi Watts, Rio Grillo, Mel Gibson, Selina Lo, Michelle Yeoh
From Palm Springs and The Map of Tiny Perfect Things to Edge of Tomorrow, ARQ and Before I Fall, the time-loop thriller is a genre that we keep seeing again and again on our screens of late. Hulu’s Boss Level, though, comes with a pre-booted additional note of interest, in that it’s the latest offering from Joe Carnahan. The director of Narc and The A-Team has always had a knack for delivering thrills with heft, and he doesn’t disappoint here, throwing us straight into the action mid-time loop.
That smart decision – following the same tact taken by both Palm Springs and The Map of Tiny Perfect Things – allows us to skip the preamble and get straight to the meaty stuff. Where for Palm Springs that meant diving into the existential ennui, and for Tiny Perfect Things that meant capturing the romantic chemistry of two time-loopers crossing paths, here it means dialling the carnage up to 11 from the off. We join Roy (Frank Grillo), a former special forces officer, as he’s awoken in bed by an assassin trying to kill him, whom he casually dispatches before taking care of several other henchmen and dodging an onslaught of bullets while making an espresso.
It’s a strikingly cool opening sequence, one that immediately displays Roy’s credentials as a fighter and survivor. But where that might make the ensuing 100 minutes repetitive and dull – our character has some sword-wielding skills to learn but is otherwise a fully formed combat machine – it also lets the script (co-written by Carnahan with Eddie Borey and Chris Borey) introduce the film’s signature flourish: a weary noir-tinged voiceover that explains what’s going on with despairing frustration.
This narration is delivered with impeccable gruffness by Frank Grillo, who clearly relishes the chance to take centre-stage. (Between this and Netflix’s Wheelman, streaming platforms have been much quicker than traditional Hollywood to pick up on his charismatic leading man potential.) Grillo is a perfect fit for the role, able to be tired and just a bit angry but also likeable, thanks to his resourceful thinking, quick reflexes and deceptively understated presence – at no point does he comes across as cocky, playing Roy closer to a loser in search of redemption.
Grillo is so effective in the lead role, deadpanning his way through escalating threats, that the rest of the cast don’t really get a look in. That’s no bad thing when the Big Bad is played by Mel Gibson, but it’s a shame that Naomi Watts doesn’t get more to do as Roy’s ex-wife, Jemma, while the non-stop parade of villains are mostly little more than catchphrases waiting to be bumped off. (Watch out for Selina Lo in a scene-stealing part as the entertaining Guan Yin.)
That contributes to the video game-style flourishes, such as the 8-bit title cards that announce the number of loops Roy has completed so far. But beyond the general format of a side-scrolling arcade fighter, with the level restarting each time our protagonist dies, there’s not much more going on in terms of gaming – despite the title, Boss Level is a few platform jumps short of something thematically richer, such as Scott Pilgrim vs the World.
Rather, video games are a coincidental way for Roy to bond with his son (played by Frank’s real life son, Rio Grillo), thanks to a cute scene set in an arcade. It’s here that the film also finds a poignant sentimental streak, which recalls the unexpectedly emotional punch of Carnahan’s The Grey. While the onslaught of cars, guns, helicopters, punch-ups and swords is impressively relentless and slickly assembled, what sticks with you is a point where Roy hides in bed for several cycles – a moment of vulnerability and self-loathing that proves that even the most familiar of sub-genres can still find ways to surprise.