Boss Level is dumb and familiar and, well, bad, but it also manages to inject enough consistent fun to keep it just barely afloat.
Like an ungainly mix of Groundhog Day (or any of its many, many scions, particularly Edge of Tomorrow), and Neveldine/Taylor’s anarchic Gamer, Joe Carnahan’s Boss Level borrows the looping, repetitive structure of the former and the gross-out violence and frat-dude humor of the latter in service of a completely unoriginal programmer. Originally conceived by Carnahan in 2012, Boss Level could have beat Edge of Tomorrow to screens by a year or so, but that iteration of the film never happened, and the version we have now has been sitting on a shelf since 2019 while an avalanche of time-loop flicks have since stolen some conceptual thunder. It’s bad timing, for sure, but it’s hard to imagine this being a crowd pleaser regardless of when it was released.
Waking up every morning next to a strange woman and a machete-wielding assailant, Roy Pulver (Frank Grillo) has no idea why he’s stuck replaying the same day over and over. His live-die-repeat routine consists of fending off this attacker, dodging a helicopter shooting through his windows, diving from his fourth-floor apartment into the back of a truck, stealing a car, fending off another set of attackers, and then winding up at a bar, where he proceeds to drink until his eventual death at the hands of a bevy of colorful hit men. It’s the same every day, with slight variations, which Carnahan helpfully condenses into snappy montages that visualize the myriad number of ways Roy has been murdered. This stuff is very familiar, but there’s a punchy energy to the proceedings, with an emphasis on exaggerated, cartoonish violence that plays like a Looney Tunes short — the number of times Roy is decapitated is frankly breathtaking. Things always end with Roy dead, waking back up in bed, and starting again, but there also has to be a plot to go along with the gimmick, and so Carnahan flashes back to the “day before” and introduces Roy’s estranged wife, Jemma (Naomi Watts). She’s a scientist working on some top-secret project for the military and is scared of something or other. She needs help, but before long, she’s dead at the hands of her boss, Colonel Ventor (Mel Gibson). Armed with a cryptic message from Jemma and a book she has gifted him, Roy decides to stop feeling sorry for himself and get revenge for his wife, altering his routine to try and stay alive for longer each day. He questions the early morning machete guy before he kills him, figures out that the woman he picked up at a bar and wakes up next to every day actually works for Ventor, and discovers a tracking device in his tooth (a delightfully gross scene where he has to keep pulling out his own teeth before finding the right one). There’s more to it than that, but again, it’s nothing you haven’t seen before. Accordingly, each death allows Roy to get a little closer to a final confrontation with Ventor, while also reconciling with the estranged son who doesn’t know that Roy is his dad, and ultimately avoiding an apocalyptic event caused by the device Jemma was working on.
It’s all pretty dumb, but manages to be occasionally fun. Carnahan has a real gift is juggling a huge number of characters; there are over a dozen speaking parts here, from the group of eccentric assassins right out of Carnahan’s own Smokin’ Aces to a smarmy bartender played by Ken Jeong to a small cameo role from Michelle Yeoh (mostly wasted here, unfortunately). The director likewise orchestrates mayhem with aplomb, cutting together endless stabbings, shootings, explosions, sword fights, and other grievous bodily harm. It’s fast-paced, but Carnahan’s smug, assholish sense of humor undercuts much of the modest pleasure on display. Like his misbegotten attempt at screwball comedy — Stretch, another project that sat on a shelf before finally being unceremoniously dumped onto Netflix — Boss Level has to frequently pause for belabored attempts at humor, like the henchman who stumbles around with a sword in his head, narrating his own final moments of life, or an assassin who details the origins of her preferred handgun, which was once owned by Hitler — when Roy shoots her, he quips, “That’s for the Jews.” Even the casting of Gibson, also largely wasted, seems like merely a pretense to get in one dumb joke about racism. Furthermore, Roy is a prick, and while the film is ostensibly charting his progress from rakish dickhead to doting father, Grillo can’t really sell the transformation. Even worse, he narrates the film from start to finish, filling every moment with obnoxious observations and inane patter. It’s a bad choice in a mostly bad movie that nonetheless musters some fun with its over-the-top moments, and is directed with just enough care to make one wish it were better. Still, I’ll take this lizard-brained exercise in macho dick swinging over Before I Fall or The Map of Tiny Perfect Things. Do with that what you will.
You can stream Joe Carnahan’s Boss Level on Hulu beginning on March 5.