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'Boss Level' Review: Never reaches its final stage

Joe Carnahan's 'Boss Level' exudes the frantic firefight freneticism of gamer fantasies, but doesn't do much else.

A showdown before the 'Boss Level.'
(Image: © Hulu)

Our Verdict

'Boss Level' plops Frank Grillo into a video game universe that's never fully programmed, between forgettable motivations and a final act that barely exists.

For

  • 🎮 That Frank Grillo is pretty talented.
  • 🎮 At its most explosive, action excites.
  • 🎮 Creative character presentation.

Against

  • 🎮 Development lacks across the board.
  • 🎮 Major third act issues.
  • 🎮 The second act drags.
  • 🎮 Never as fun as the 00s action callbacks tease.

This post contains spoilers for Boss Level.

In Boss Level, Joe Carnahan attempts to massage the 2000s action prestigiousness of Crank and Smokin’ Aces into a Groundhog Day time-loop about marital values and Gatling guns—except it’s never that fun. What a shame, since badass extraordinaire Frank Grillo is a good sport about enduring physical brutalization on repeat à la Edge Of Tomorrow. What lacks are the morality cues and odes to paternal wholesomeness, given how Carnahan’s rebootable hero can only focus on one solitary subplot at a time. Not to say all bullet-riddled video game simulations require deeply entrenched motivations, but Boss Level is exceedingly vapid and void of stakes.

We’ll get there, and when I do, spoilers will come into play. Be warned—now and once more—when it’s finale discussion time because when I say “yikes,” I mean Carnahan’s outro recalls  The Turning tinged post-traumatic duress.

Grillo stars as ex-Delta Force specialist Roy Pulver, whose morning routine includes coffee, exercise, and defending against the same advancing goon day after day. For whatever reason, possibly related to his estranged wife Jemma’s (Naomi Watts) Osiris Spindle time machine, Roy relives the same day against afterlife odds. Roy arises, embarrasses an incompetent hitman, flees his apartment via a shattered window, and is then murdered by a gallery of mercenary rogues. Most redos he soaks in Baijiu liquor to numb inescapable deaths, but maybe there’s something more to his paradoxical purgatory of defeat. Perhaps the answers lie within a context clue Jemma drops before “The Restart,” or finally connecting with gamer son Joe (Rio Grillo), or eliminating the main big-bad behind masterplans, tech-tyrant Colonel Clive Ventor (Mel Gibson)?

While Grillo’s fist-and-foot talents sparsely display en maximum in punctuated bursts, the visibly dehydrated, vein-popping mass of kickassery lands impactful haymakers when necessary. There’s an enjoyable exasperation behind cyclical deaths, be they pistol shots to the gonads, or spears through the heart or multiple decapitations at the hand of an egotistical swordswoman. Grillo spouts 80s-chewable zingers that’ll make even the punniest commando blush, but in other moments, Grillo’s machismo charisma is the proper embellishment you’d find playing, say, Grand Theft Auto. He’s embodying an open-world character who can swipe slick roadsters from hipster moneymen and laugh in their face or get hammered at a dingy noodle house bar prior to becoming a target practice dummy before going aggro-berzerk. Apparently, revenge is a dish best served by Frank Grillo?

Elsewhere, the ideas surrounding Roy’s futile inward quest for peace and fulfillment are either scattershot or woefully underdeveloped. Roy‘s presented all the clues (mister police) and continually pieces them together with such exceptional unawareness that parody is the only explanation. Either Roy has crosshairs set on demolitions experts and hillbilly hired guns, or spends time playing Street Fighter with Joe (ambiguous screen fritz), or dashes to Jemma’s rescue because maybe she’s dead, maybe there's still enough time to prevent Ventor's betrayal. Rarely in the same "attempt," mind you. Boss Level, an unfortunately one-note button masher, is so short-sighted in its storytelling allowances that no level of Grillo’s energy can distract from Roy’s dumbfounding situational readings. Some of those narration lines seem like scribbled footnotes read accidentally, yet “provide exposition” with baffling sincerity.

A colorful cast of mercs become throwaway obstacles from black Germans to femme fatales brandishing Adolph Hitler’s initialed firearm (we’ll return here momentarily) to bladeswoman Guan Yin (Selina Lo), who proclaims after every Roy defeat, “I am Guan Yin, and Guan Yin has done this!” If we’re comparing, Smokin’ Aces is a marvel in the way its sprawling roster of lawmen and criminals develop with equal importance and breathability. Boss Level doesn’t rise above creating non-playable buffoons outside Roy, serving purposes written into codes that start and stop with a singular mission. Rob Gronkowski as a chopper gunner to Will Sasso as a padded meathead stereotype bodyguard to Mel Gibson as the monologuing evildoer who, um, ain’t all that imposing? Boss Level aims to excite with bash-and-smash sequences set to Boston’s “Foreplay/Long Time,” don’t get me wrong. Still, given how unexciting the mid-act soul searching becomes, we realize there’s just as much desire to explore a comforting familial reconnection that just ain’t in the script. Everything suffers by conflicting desires to both woo and wow that do neither.

Oh, and while we’re at it? Choices were made casting noted anti-semite Mel Gibson in a film that repetitively uses Adolph Hitler’s name, or punchlines, “This is for the Jews,” or has Gibson himself snark at an Asian character, upon presuming her Chinese weapon a Japanese katana, “let’s not make this about race.” I’m not here to debate the blurry boundaries of separating art from artists, but if you employ someone with a spotted history like Mel Gibson's, maybe we don’t pretend like hate-speak wasn't once uttered and, well, suggest forced-upon reform? It’s careless casting and an even more tone-deaf exploitation.

So, about the ending to Boss Level. You know, the one that doesn’t exist? After testing every possible break-in scenario like a crash test dummy with unlimited extra lives, Roy enters Ventor’s facility and rescues Jemma from suffocation. She explains that he’s become the Osiris Spindle’s subject, and he’ll continue replaying the previous day until he walks into the electro-glowy spinning Arc Reactor (call it what it is), after which life will resume as normal. He’ll finally wake up with the possibility to die! This is it, right? The culminating climax where Roy—armed with all the experiences and knowledge from a year lived as an arcade protagonist—saves the day, now with mortal consequences?

WRONG.

Roy passionately kisses the woman he bailed on for booze and military adrenaline highs, then struts into the whirring science experiment. He's seen waking up one last time, grinning at the camera—and that’s it. “Boss Level'' pops onto the screen as a digital-green title card, and the credits roll. No fakeout, no "gotcha" prank. The very second Carnahan finally issues Boss Level critical stakes, he smashes the “LOL” button and ejects before we can adequately comprehend the infuriation of being duped by a narrative that evolves so very little and action choreography that’s fun enough at best. I’m at a loss for words.

Could Boss Level achieve salvation through a finale that reinforces Roy as the martyr father—the selfless husband—who finally has to risk something to gain everything? It’s possible, but as a critic, I’m forced to assess what’s available. Joe Carnahan’s intentions are pure at heart between messages about wasted days washed in alcoholism and being there for loved ones who require mutual commitment—but execution is much less sincere or enthusiastic. Frank Grillo does what he can with miniguns, training montages alongside Michelle Yeoh, and proper sportsmanship over being dubbed a loser more than thrice—it’s just never enough. Comparison points like Crank, Smokin' Aces, and Shoot ‘Em Up are ancient memories where over-the-topness relishes its cartoonish limitlessness. Boss Level never [sigh] levels-up, existing more like a montage of gruesome executions neutered more than supercharged—no film that includes lines like “It’s about to get steel” before sword fighting should be this much of a chore.