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'Boss Level' Review: Frank Grillo and Joe Carnahan's latest is berserk, ingenious fun

This isn't your grandpa's time-travel movie. More like a video game lover's heaven. If you want great action and lots of laughs, this is your flick
Credit: Hulu Originals

ST. LOUIS — If you think waking up in the morning is a pain in the butt, just know your day will be better than Roy Pulver's (Frank Grillo).

Before he can lift his head, the retired Special Forces soldier has to dodge a machete slamming into his bed frame-and after the first sip of coffee, there's Gunner (Rob Gronkowski, yes the guy who just won a Super Bowl) carrying a heavily-powered machine gun while dangling out of a helicopter outside the living room window. Welcome to the first five minutes of Joe Carnahan's "Boss Level," a film that gets better as it becomes more berserk.

The "Narc" and "The Grey" director doesn't waste a second of your time with his latest, a Hulu Original gleefully stepping out of bounds. If you were wondering why this movie didn't come out before, well it's because Hollywood usually doesn't allow viewers to have this much fun inside 90 minutes. Carnahan's film doesn't let up and keeps you smiling and laughing as the stakes of Roy's day increase.

If the clock strikes noon and he is still alive, Roy will tell you it's been a very lucky day-because usually he's dead by then. That's because hired killers, of all varieties and sizes, are coming for him. Why? Well, where would the fun be in that? Just know he will relive this day again tomorrow; the one with killers, car chases, midget assassins, ninjas, future NFL Hall of Famers firing Blain's gun, and a couple MMA fighters gunning for Roy's head. Oh, and there's also an evil Colonel (Mel Gibson) who wants to play God and Pulver's estranged wife, Jemma (Naomi Watts) attempting some weird science.

If the time travel-infused plot reminds you of Doug Liman's "Edge of Tomorrow," I assure you Grillo loses his head (literally) far more often than Tom Cruise ever will onscreen. Has Cruise ever told you how your tongue would taste if there was a burning bullet lodged inside of it? I bet not. This isn't exactly a blood-drunk "Groundhog Day" either. Roy doesn't have to walk in front of a bus to die; he'll catch it instead or be thrown in front of it. "Boss Level" is easily one of the most violent action comedies with plenty of thrills and guess what, humor too.

What sets this film apart from those other films is that seemingly endless concoction of good music, boatloads of action, and much-needed tongue-in-cheek humor. Carnahan never allows the film to get too serious or light, or shed its bad boy badge.

Made for $45 million inside 30 days, "Boss Level" is a geeky throwback with berserk intentions and a big heart. There's a lot of well-played satirical action here as well, as if Carnahan wants to show the world what action was before superhero movies took over. But there are also extended slow-down sequences that pack a dramatic punch, such as Roy reconnecting with the son he doesn't know much about. And if you were wondering why both actors share similar hair, it's because young Joe is played by Grillo's real-life son, Rio. They need to make more movies together, because the kid brings out a new shade of pale in his dad's onscreen persona.

By now, you know Grillo can throw a wicked punch and save the day. He got into incredible shape to play this role, which required real movie star swagger. One that can get punched, beheaded, run over, blown up, or dragged across a street-and still bring a measure of levity to it. Grillo is a guy who doesn't require a second to convince when fighting (a purple belt in Jiu-Jitsu goes a long way), but I feel like film audiences haven't gotten to see him show off his emotional range just yet. They will see that (and a sense of humor) in "Boss Level," a film with a mind of its own.

Chris and Eddie Borey came up with the story, which lets its gamer freak flag fly. The title of the film refers to an extreme high level for a video game addict to reach, and the movie itself carries the visual palette of a never-ending arcade game, using flashing text on the screen like "in progress." The Boreys and Carnahan put together a killer screenplay, which does pump the brakes on occasion-and for good reason.

As my dad once said, an adventure film that can slow down is a signature blend. Sneak enough story in there to fool the people who think action can't talk. And "Boss Level" does pack a dramatic punch for a film that only weighs 94 minutes. Roy has to get through dozens of trained killers in order to find out why he's in this loop, but he's also a man trying to replace lost time, which is still history's most vicious killer.

One of the best moments of the film comes between Pulver and Gibson's Colonel, who tells our hero that "Hitler" and "9/11" can be erased with his new plan. Roy's response is such good writing, throwing a timely haymaker that I didn't see coming.

"The past is the past. It's designed to be left behind. We live, and we learn from it." 

Carnahan knows how to make it count (once again, "NARC"), even if it's all moving very fast. I'll die on a hill that reads "Smokin' Aces" was a blast, because it had personality and meant something. He put weight into that kinetic action opus, and he delivers just enough pathos in Roy's mission to make the third act really hit home. Whenever I leave a "Carno Joe" joint, I feel like I left a friend's house and not an enemy's basement. It's like a supervillain staring at the Hollywood sign and cackling!

The supporting cast is layered and unique. Michelle Yeoh proves that a little can go a long way, especially with a sword in your hand. I was thrilled to hear Watts using her lovely native Australian tongue, and Will Sasso has a nice role. Gibson burns the bad boy oil with veteran pride here, delivering a malevolent yet rich performance. Few actors can do more with a single line. Meadow Williams is someone to keep an eye on. Her description of an antique yet still usable pistol is priceless.

Extra kudos to a wicked soundtrack, including tunes from Badfinger, Boston, Clarence Ashe, and The Chambers Brothers.

Bottom Line: "Boss Level's" charm is versatile, and it really entertains. Time’s vicious hold doesn’t outrun the pure fun involved here. I had a smile on my face for the entire film, and wanted to watch it all over again immediately. There's a lot of gemstones packed into this experience. Carnahan and Grillo need to make more movies together.


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