Boss Level: Cheat Code, by David Bax
What does it say about Joe Carnahan, director of such brawny and well-loved movies as Narc and The Grey, that the work to which he chooses to pay self-homage in the lazy Boss Level is the critically reviled Smokin’ Aces? The zany bunch of assassins all gunning for the same guy aren’t the A plot this time around but is their inclusion an intentional fuck-you to all the bad reviews from fifteen years ago? A nod to what I assume is the older film’s very small, loyal fanbase? Or an indication that Carnahan is an artist of indiscriminate taste who just manages to whip up something good every once in a while? If it’s the last, Boss Level is not one of those lucky instances.
Frank Grillo stars as Roy Pulver, a man living the same day over and over again. Or, at least, he’s living that day only up to the point when he gets killed, which happens one way or another, sooner or later, no matter what choices he makes. He doesn’t know who has hired a parade of killers to snuff him out or why but he learns a little more every time.
Boss Level‘s take on the Groundhog Day-style time loop movie (a genre unto itself at this point) is that, when it starts, the protagonist has already lived the same day over 100 times; this may have been done before but, again, there are a lot of these movies. Anyway, the upside here is that we get to watch Roy go jadedly through the motions of avoiding machetes and bullets he’s long since committed to memory. Voiceover narration guides us into the occasional flashback to earlier “attempts” and to the yesterday that keeps sliding further and further away from him. But then the spell is broken when Carnahan and co-screenwriters Chris and Eddie Borey choose to venture outside Roy’s perspective and give us boilerplate scenes of the mad villain (Mel Gibson), his henchman (Will Sasso) and Roy’s ex-wife (Naomi Watts), which expose the run-of-the-mill action thriller under Boss Level‘s high concept surface.
Maybe the movie would have been better, actually, if that’s all it aspired to. There’s no arguing that Carnahan can stage an action sequence. The car chases and sword fights are slick and thrilling and the memorized bout of hand to hand combat that begins each of Roy’s attempts resembles a cheaper-looking version of Leigh Whannell’s Upgrade.
But Boss Level had to go and try to be funny. Grillo’s a born action star but sub-Deadpool quips are not his strength. His physicality does make him a perfect vehicle for the movie’s many dark visual gags; namely, the various and usually shocking ways he gets killed over and over. But that all gets muddled by Grillo continuously growling out “Here we go again”-style commentary.
Roy is not exactly an everyman; he’s former Delta Force, as Boss Level makes damned good and sure we’re aware. But the movie wants to have its cake and eat it too, positioning him as a put-upon schlub in the John McClane mold one second and capable of becoming a master swordsman in under two months of lessons the next. If this is a video game, as the title suggests, Carnahan’s playing it on easy mode.