I’m a big fan of Joe Carnahan as a filmmaker. “Narc,” “The Grey” and “The A-Team” are all great. “Smokin’ Aces” and “Stretch” are fun. The only movie of Carnahan’s I don’t dig is his ultra-low-budget debut “Blood, Guts, Bullets and Octane.”
Carnahan hasn’t always had the best of luck as a director. At one point or another he was attached to the following projects – “Mission Impossible 3,” a George Clooney-fronted adaptation of James Ellroy’s “White Jazz,” a remake of Otto Preminger’s “Bunny Lake Is Missing” starring Reese Witherspoon, an adaptation of Mark Bowden’s “Killing Pablo” that had both Javier Bardem and Édgar Ramírez attached as the titular character, “A Walk Among the Tombstones” when Harrison Ford was slated to star, MGM’s remake of “Death Wish” (Carnahan wanted to cast Frank Grillo as the lead; the studio wanted and eventually went with Bruce Willis) and “Bad Boys for Life” (he left the project over creative differences with Will Smith, but remained one of the three credited screenwriters).
This brings us to “Boss Level,” which is now available to stream on Hulu. True to Carnahan form, this didn’t come to audiences easily either. The movie, initially developed at 20th Century Fox in 2012 under the title “Continue,” began filming in April 2018 and was supposed to be released by Entertainment Studios Motion Pictures on Aug. 16, 2019, but that date came and went before the streamer picked up the picture for low eight figures late last year.
Grillo stars as retired Special Forces officer Roy Pulver, who opted to abandon his scientist girlfriend Jemma (Naomi Watts) and their son Joe (Grillo’s real-life son Rio) in order to continue getting his adrenalized thrills playing soldier in the sandbox.
Roy’s returned home remorseful over having been absent in the lives of his loved ones. He attempts to gain employment as security in Jemma’s lab where she works for Col. Clive Ventor (Mel Gibson) developing a MacGuffin time travel device called the Osiris Spindle.
Jemma, concerned about Ventor’s intentions for the Spindle, places Roy inside the machine where he’ll have to continue living the same day repeatedly in hopes of thwarting Ventor and saving Jemma, Joe and the world as a whole. Ventor employs a rogue’s gallery of assassins (calling to mind Carnahan’s “Smokin’ Aces” and embodied eclectically by martial artist/actress Selina Lo, former B.A. Baracus Quinton ‘Rampage’ Jackson and recent recurring Super Bowl champion Rob Gronkowski, amongst others) in order to vanquish Roy.
“Boss Level” plays out like a bloodier, bro’d out version of “Edge of Tomorrow.” It’s nowhere near as charming as last year’s “Palm Springs” (Hulu’s other time loop title), but that’s not to say it’s charmless. This is a big ol’ coming out party for Grillo as a leading man. He’s more than up for the task and has charm in spades. Grillo plays annoyance, agitation and anger beautifully. Carnahan and his co-writers brothers Chris and Eddie Borey dream up countless ways of dispatching Roy and Grillo sells ‘em all humorously. Additionally, Grillo is in absolutely bonkers shape for a 55-year-old man and brings real emotional heft to third act scenes between he and Rio. (This is a casting coup for Carnahan. You can’t fake the real love between father and son. The junior Grillo has presence to boot.) “Boss Level” is one of eight pictures Grillo has releasing in 2021. He’s good enough that he deserves to work this much. I eagerly anticipate Grillo and Carnahan’s next collaboration through their WarParty Films production shingle, “Cop Shop,” which co-stars Gerard Butler and is currently slated for release later this year.
As good as Grillo is (and he’s very, very good), there isn’t a whole lot of meat left on the bone for his co-stars. Watts and Michelle Yeoh (as a mysterious swordswoman named Dai Feng who trains Roy in the art of the blade) come across as smart, capable and badass women, but this has more to do with them being Watts and Yeoh and less to do with the movie itself. Yeoh especially seems underserved by the proceedings with her character’s development being relegated to a single montage. (I suspect a lot of her work wound up on the cutting room floor.) Gibson too doesn’t have much scenery to chew. I wish the filmmakers had loosened his leash and really let him rip. I did enjoy Will Sasso (Curly in the Farrelly Brothers’ 2012 “The Three Stooges” redux) as Ventor’s henchman, Brett, however.
“Boss Level” should appeal to fans of Carnahan’s, Grillo’s, time loop tales, video games and cool tunes (there are expert needle drops from Boston, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Roy Orbison, Badfinger and Black Flag as well as “South American Getaway” from “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid”). It’s simply a fun fucking flick. Besides, it’s not every day that audiences can watch a movie where its protagonist gets decapitated a dozen times.