A man is stuck in a time loop and doomed to repeat the same day over and over again, all while being hunted by a group of deadly assassins, in Boss Level. We’ve been deluged with time loop-centric fare the last few years, with Happy Death Day (2017), Happy Death Day 2U (2019), Russian Doll (2019), and Palm Springs (2020) representing the best of the recent offerings. Add Boss Level to that list, not because it’s particularly deep or because it boasts an innovative new twist but because everyone on-screen is clearly having a blast, and their enthusiasm is contagious, making this film just plain fun to watch—and ultimately that’s what entertainment is all about.
(Some spoilers below, but no major reveals.)
Director Joe Carnahan (The Blacklist, The Grey) started working on a script for a film with the working title Continue back in 2012. He envisioned making “Groundhog Day as an action movie,” but the project apparently foundered at 20th Century Fox. Later that year, he posted footage from screen tests with eventual star Frank Grillo—who had worked with Carnahan on 2011’s The Grey—”to show you how cool this movie could have been.” (Carnahan deleted his Twitter account in 2019 after attacking multiple critics who gave his film, El Chicano, mixed reviews and receiving considerable blowback for doing so. His account is currently listed as “suspended.”) Fortunately, the project was revived in 2017, and Hulu snatched up the distribution rights last year.
Per the official premise:
Trapped in a time loop that constantly repeats the day of his murder, former special forces agent Roy Pulver (Frank Grillo) uncovers clues about a secret government project that could unlock the mystery behind his untimely death. In a race against the clock, Pulver must hunt down Colonel Ventor (Mel Gibson), the powerful head of the government program, while outrunning skilled ruthless assassins determined to keep him from the truth in order to break out of the loop, save his ex-wife (Naomi Watts), and live once again for tomorrow.
Roy has already been through his death-day cycle over a hundred times when we first meet him, waking up in his industrial loft next to a woman he’d brought home the night before (Annabelle Wallis), only to have his morning interrupted by an assassin with a machete. He makes quick work of that guy and also survives a machine gun onslaught by a gunner (Rob Gronkowski) in a helicopter outside his window. As he proceeds with his day, Roy’s narration deftly walks us through the basics of his predicament via a humorous montage of past demises. He has never lived past 12:47 pm, regardless of where he happens to be at the time.
It’s very much like being stuck on a level of a video game, trying to figure out the correct sequence to level up and break the loop. (Wynonna Earp used a similar conceit in a S3 episode, “Undo It.”) The colorful assortment of assassins Frank must defeat includes “the German Twins” (Quinton Jackson and Rashad Evans); a dwarf with a fondness for explosives that Roy nicknames “Kaboom” (Aaron Beelner); a red-head he calls “Pam” (Meadow Williams); a redneck with a harpoon launcher Roy nicknames “Smiley” (Michael Tourek); and the black-clad, sword-wielding Guan Yin (Selina Lo), who proudly announces, “I am Guan Yin and I have done this” every time she kills Roy—one of the film’s best running gags.
Roy enlists the help of Chef Jake (Ken Jeong), who owns a local Chinese diner and bar, as well as a security expert named Dave (Sheaun McKinney) and a Chinese champion sword fighter, Dai Feng (Michelle Yeoh) to help him defeat Guan Yin in particular. As he starts to alter his daily routine, he gradually learns more about what his ex-wife, Jemma, was really working on and just how much is at stake.
Grillo carries the film with his world-weary, deadpan delivery, but the entire cast leans into their respective roles with gusto, including Gibson’s deliciously evil colonel. Granted, the characters here have all the depth and complexity of those in a video game, and the underlying plot is thin on details and sometimes a bit silly. But that can work in the context of the “video game as time loop” conceit. Carnahan keeps the story moving at a brisk pace, never giving us time to dwell too much on everything that doesn’t make much sense.
The film is bloody and violent but in a cartoonish way that lets the audience savor the black humor of Roy’s many fatalities—and his occasional revenge. (My personal favorite was the beheading by Guan Yin on an escalator, Roy’s severed head bouncing down each step as she pronounces her victory phrase.) And it ends on just the right open-ended note. Boss Level ultimately works because it doesn’t take itself too seriously and brings the audience along on its witty, madcap ride.
Boss Level is currently streaming on Hulu.
Listing image by Hulu