Boss Level  Review: A Future Cult Classic
During the first five minutes of Joe Carnahan’s latest spectacle, Boss Level, the audience is treated to a frenetic fight sequence involving Frank Grillo’s Roy Pulver killing a henchman with a machete, throwing a knife at a gunner sitting on a helicopter outside of his window, who accidentally shoots the helicopter pilot, which causes it to crash in Pulver’s house. Already, Carnahan sets the stage for what’s to come: an insanely creative action film that takes the framework of the “time-loop” to gamify it, with Pulver having to relive the same day over and over again to figure out which objectives he has to beat to solve the mystery of the “Osiris Spindle,” a device his ex-wife (Naomi Watts) created to rewrite history.
Her boss, Clive Ventor (Mel Gibson), wants to use the Spindle for his own agenda by erasing some of history’s most horrible events and setting himself up as the world’s dictator. The result is a purely escapist adventure and one of the best films of the year that doesn’t really play with the tired concept of the time-loop as most mainstream films do but interprets it as a video-game level to beat with different scenarios, which provides unique victories (or gruesome deaths).
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Few directors have succeeded brilliantly in transposing the mechanics of a video-game level in film. The last time it happened successfully was in Tom Tykwer’s Lola Rennt, which showed three different scenarios of the same “level”. Joe Carnahan takes direct inspiration from Tykwer’s film to create his own gamification of cinema through the “Osiris Spindle.” He rejects every familiar trope of the “time-loop film” and instead presents his story in a non-linear fashion, going back and forth between the “past,” where we see Pulver dying in highly creative ways (alongside the sweet sounds of Burt Bacharach’s South American Getaway) and the “present,” which are presented in “attempts.” Usually, in a “time-loop” film, the protagonist will have a 10-ish minute sequence where he has no idea what is happening and tries to grasp the reality of the situation he is now living in. By treating the time-loop of the Osiris Spindle as “attempts,” none of the clichés surrounding the time-loop sub-genre are present, which allows Carnahan to craft a perfectly balanced action film, mixing the high-octane stunts of Just Cause and the fight mechanics of Street Fighter with the framing-device of Lola Rennt, trapped in a meta referential comedy.
This film type can’t work if it isn’t directed by someone who doesn’t understand how video game mechanics can be cinematically interpreted. Thankfully, Joe Carnahan knows exactly how the cyclical system of a video game level works: most of the film’s side characters are NPCs (non-playable characters) by nature, with Selina Lo’s Guan Yin finishing every kill she accomplishes by the sentence “I am Guan Yin! And Guan Yin has done this!” or Naomi Watts whose only purpose is to spew as much exposition as possible for Pulver so she can get “killed” afterward (she served her purpose in the game). Heck, Pulver even does a side-mission with Michelle Yeoh’s Dai Feng to learn sword-fighting to defeat Guan Yin. Mel Gibson also portrays a villain who reminded me of many antagonists from the Farcry series, with elaborate monologues to describe their “ruling” plans. Gibson is also excellent in the film and gives his best villainous performance since he starred in the terrible The Expendables 3. He shares incredible charisma and dynamic chemistry with Frank Grillo, who continues to prove he is one of the best action stars working today.
Without Grillo’s performance and narration, the film couldn’t be as good as it is. He commands the entire picture with his brilliant sense of charm and tactility during combat sequences. From his tenure in The Purge films to his starring role in Jeremy Rush’s Wheelman, Grillo is one of the most appreciated action stars of our time and deserves to be treated as such. He pours his heart and soul into everything he does, and most of his performances are incredibly memorable to see. Boss Level sees him giving the performance of his career, showcasing his comedic side and his perfect rhythm during the film’s action sequences. In terms of action, Boss Level more than delivers. Its fight sequences are incredibly kinetic, its rhythm is perfect, and the film’s sole car chase is spectacular. The kills are gruesome and, at times, incredibly shocking, but Carnahan makes every ounce of blood, guts, bullets, and explosions feel incredibly fun. Its frenetic rhythm never stops and keeps surprising the audience by finding new ways to kill its main protagonist (or antagonists). Boss Level presents its Spindle as a pure sandbox, which gives Carnahan and co-screenwriters Chris and Eddie Borey carte blanche to do whatever they want inside it. Because of this, Boss Level never kowtows to any familiar tropes in any sub-genre the film riffs itself upon and continues to find new ways to stays itself fresh.
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Boss Level is destined to become a cult classic in a few years since it contains every ingredient a perfect genre film has. The action sequences are insanely fun; the cinematography is enticing and lively. The star-studded cast also seems to have an incredible ball, and Carnahan knows exactly what he wants to accomplish; turning the “time-loop” into an elongated video-game level, mixing Just Cause’s sandbox, inside the surrealist fighting of Capcom’s Street Fighter and Lola Rennt’s cyclical structure. If you have a Hulu subscription (or live in Canada, with the film now being available on video-on-demand), look no further and watch this movie immediately. It will [quite literally] take you by surprise, and you won’t regret the ride you took with Roy Pulver inside the Spindle.