PLOT: A retired special forces operative (Frank Grillo) is trapped in a time loop that somehow revolves around his ex-wife (Naomi Watts) and her shadowy employer (Mel Gibson).
REVIEW: Frank Grillo’s finally got the big-budget action flick he’s always deserved with BOSS LEVEL. Well, maybe big-budget is a misnomer. It only looks big budget, with it having been shot for a relatively modest $45 million, although director Joe Carnahan makes it seem like it was shot for three times that. In some ways, it’s a shame that it’s not getting a wide theatrical release, as it’s certainly designed to take Grillo to another level as an action star. However, with us coming up on a full year stuck in a pandemic, now might be just the time for Hulu to drop this fun slice of eighties nostalgia.
While some may wince at the fact that this is another time loop flick, it would help to think of Boss Level more as a video game movie. Grillo is our not-so-invincible hero, who dies over and over in ultra gruesome (hard-R) ways, and has to learn through trial and error how to overcome certain challenges and “bosses”, such as Selina Lo’s katana-wielding, scene-stealing Guan Yin.
Grillo, who has the body of a Street Fighter 2 avatar, is ultra-game for some big-budget mayhem. What makes him especially appealing is that not only is he the real deal physically (he does his fights without doubles), but there’s a real vulnerability to him. His character, Roy Pulver, has a legit arc. He’s a broken-down, alcoholic, unemployed ex-soldier who’s trying to make things right with the ex he still loves while getting to know the son he all but abandoned to play soldier. There’s a real weight to his character, and you get the sense that there’s growth too, as the Pulver from the climax, where he’s repeated the same day hundreds of times, is a significantly more mature man than the one we meet initially.
Likewise, Naomi Watts has a far weightier role than expected as his ex, who’s essentially responsible for Roy’s predicament, as she knows that as deadbeat as he can sometimes be, there’s a truly heroic quality in him that just needs to be unlocked. She and Grillo have great chemistry, helped by the fact that neither is afraid to be vulnerable on-screen. For Grillo especially, this is a quality that sets him apart from a lot of his contemporaries, especially someone like Jason Statham as he’s not afraid to lose the occasional on-screen fight, making the character much more heroic (I never got why some action stars are so affraid to take the occasional on-screen ass-kicking).
Joe Carnahan’s a seasoned pro at this kind of thing, and he invests Boss Level with a ton of manic energy, making it a fun, tightly paced ride. He’s an interesting director, as he seems equally adept at hardcore drama (NARC & The Grey) and more commercial, lighthearted fare (this and The A-Team). Carnahan’s a maverick as he’s one of the few directors out there who consistently does his own thing, and this is his throwback to the kind of high-concept fare that would have starred Schwarzenegger or Stallone back in the eighties and nineties.
Another guy that might have played the lead in a movie like this back in the day is Mel Gibson, who plays the main baddie. Chewing scenery with his diabolical beard and cigar-chomping, Gibson seems to be having fun in a role that’s pretty close to the villains he played in Machete Kills and The Expendables 3. He’s fun in the part but I must admit I miss him playing good guys or at least anti-heroes.
Overall, Boss Level is probably the best legit American action film in many moons, and hopefully, enough people will check it out on Hulu to allow Carnahan and Grillo to keep doing their thing – as they truly know the genre inside and out. I had a blast with it, and it’s the R-rated would-be blockbuster a lot of us have been waiting for.