With video games’ rapid ascendance up the pop culture ladder over the last couple decades, mainstream cinema of the action/sci-fi/fantasy variety has desperately tried to emulate its techniques, for fear of extinction in the face of the ever-more immersive and participatory nature of its competition. And while certain films like Crank or Hardcore Henry have succeeded in capturing the freneticism and first-person POV decision-making process of the gaming experience, there are countless more embarrassingly unhip attempts at bringing video games to the big screen (i.e. almost any actual cinematic adaptation of a game property) strewn about along the way.
Now we have Joe Carnahan’s Boss Level, which tries to recreate the mechanics of being inside a video game in perhaps the most literal way thus far. From an existentialist standpoint, the idea isn’t half bad. Retired special forces officer Roy Pulver (Frank Grillo) wakes up in his swanky urban loft every day to the same scenario, immediately under attack by a procession of gimmicky assassins trying to kill him. Fighting his way through as many of them as he can, he ultimately succumbs to their violence before the afternoon even fully begins, only to wake right back up on the same day to do it all over again, complete with 8-bit-styled title card indicating “Attempt #X” each time he does. It’s the Groundhog Day scenario applied to the internal logic of a game.
Except just when you’re salivating over all the potential philosophical directions this Truman-Show-for-a-new-generation setup could explore, Boss Level reveals its actual storyline. Despite all of the stylistic insistence otherwise, Roy isn’t a character in a video game at all. He’s actually trapped in a never-ending time loop after unwittingly being put inside a contraption called the “Osiris Spindle” created by his top-secret scientist ex-wife Jemma (Naomi Watts), in order to stop her evil boss, Clive Ventor (Mel Gibson), from using its power to become a ruthless dictator and take over the world.
Boss Level has been in development hell for the last decade. And back when Carnahan and screenwriters Chris and Eddie Borey initially pitched the project, this storyline may have seemed fresher. But in the years since, with Edge of Tomorrow pretty much perfecting this concept with enough time for there to be a slew of imitators in its wake, each story beat of Boss Level feels depressingly routine, especially since its clear there’s no interest in any meta-commentary beyond Roy’s annoyingly incessant voiceover that has to explain every single thing happening to remind us HOW CRAZY THIS MOVIE IS. “Show, don’t tell” is not the film’s forte.
Following his assured performance fronting 2017’s taut Carnahan-produced Wheelman, Frank Grillo continues to step up into the leading man role. And while he looks chiseled enough for the part, he essentially becomes a one-note snark machine, saddled with way too much dialogue to ever be given a chance to just breathe and settle into the character. Again, this choice could have made sense and been adequately explored if he were an actual video game character grappling with his pre-programmed nature. But he’s not. So Grillo is mostly just left stranded on an island, trying desperately to translate his lame lines into something approaching actual humour. Meanwhile, Carnahan’s films have generally been a “no-girls-allowed” zone. So it’s no surprise that Watts is thoroughly wasted here, less concerned about her character’s major scientific breakthroughs than in getting all sentimental with Grillo’s absentee father and husband.
Carnahan’s work has always flitted between two modes – authentic and gritty (his brilliant breakthrough Narc and the underrated The Grey) or cheeky and crude (pretty much everything else on his resumé). Obviously, Boss Level falls into the latter category. Which isn’t a bad approach if, again, THIS WERE LITERALLY SUPPOSED TO BE A VIDEO GAME WORLD. And in moments where one sword-wielding assassin (Selina Lo) robotically spouts the catchphrase, “I am Guan Yin, and Guan Yin has done this,” each time after slaying Roy, Carnahan seems to be flirting with his movie’s true self-aware comedic potential. But no – any kind of actual meta-humour starts and ends with Mel Gibson’s villain sounding off against “liberals” in an obnoxious world domination speech.
Insert coins and continue? Yeah, I’ll pass.
- Rated: TV-MA
- Genre: Action, Comedy, Sci-Fi
- Release Date: 3/9/2021
- Directed by: Joe Carnahan
- Starring: Annabelle Wallis, Frank Grillo, Ken Jeong, Mel Gibson, Michelle Yeoh, Naomi Watts, Selina Lo, Will Sasso
- Produced by: Anders Erdén, Arianne Fraser, Carolyn Folks, George Furla, Randall Emmett, Ted Fox
- Written by: Chris Borey, Eddie Borey, Joe Carnahan
- Studio: VVS Films