As repetitive as the time loop movie might have been in the last 12 months (just like the 12 months before and the 12 months before that etc), it’s not been quite as omnipresent, or as tiresome, as the running joke that we’re all essentially stuck in one of our own thanks to the restricted routine that’s been forced on us all. But even a year ago, Boss Level, Joe Carnahan’s action movie spin on the Groundhog Day formula, would have smelled a little musty, and not just because it was developed back in 2012 and filmed back in 2018, left on a shelf ever since.
It’s now landing with a thud on Hulu, not long after the streamer premiered the time loop romantic comedy Palm Springs, which arrived six months before Amazon’s time loop teen romantic comedy The Map of Tiny Perfect Things, which arrived a few weeks before not only this time loop action thriller but also time loop home invasion horror Lucky, out this week too. It’s a headache that, when taking into account the last four years of two Happy Death Day movies, a season of Russian Doll, the YA drama Before I Fall and the Netflix comedy Naked, quickly turns into a migraine. A rarely used narrative technique has become an overstuffed sub-genre all of its own and while it still can work (last month’s The Map of Tiny Perfect Things was a sweet surprise), too often writers rely on the gimmick of it to sell an otherwise under-par story. Without it, Boss Level would just be another poor man’s John Wick or a bankrupt man’s Taken, a story of a guy in his 50s killing a lot of people for a woman in his life, a story we’ve been offered on a loop for quite some time.
The guy is Ray (Frank Grillo), who wakes up to the same nightmare every day: everyone wants him dead. He doesn’t know why and he doesn’t know why he’s stuck here but he’s become awfully good at knowing exactly how to avoid every bullet, knife, sword and helicopter that comes his way. Like a character in a video game (which he’s not but he might as well be, even referring to this fact himself), he needs to try to get further with each day to see what’s really going on although chances are it has something to do with the mysterious tech project his ex Jemma (Naomi Watts) is working on with her evil boss, the Colonel (Mel Gibson). Ray must keep getting killed until he can find a way to live.
Carnahan, whose work has always focused on bullets, bombs and blokes (his grim, surprisingly poignant survival thriller The Grey still an underrated highpoint), stays comfortably within his wheelhouse here, yet in a way that borders on laziness, a strange flatness hampering the film, despite its energetic pace. It’s curiously un-stylish, despite every indicator trying to convince you otherwise from its soft-boiled noir voiceover (which gets tiresome real fast) to the motley assemblage of quirk-drenched assassins on Ray’s tail. The dialogue is often embarrassingly desperate to be quoted yet the one-liners range from hoary to heinous (“Shit’s about to get steel,” a character says before she uses her sword ) and Carnahan’s knowing nods (a reference to Taken, a sequence at a video game convention) feel smug rather than smart, as if he knows how pointless the whole thing is yet insists you pay attention anyway (for a film that’s modelled and named after a video game, it also appears to be strangely loathing of gamers).
When this flimsiness then hardens in the last act, when we’re expected to suddenly care about Ray, his family and whether the world might end (!), the film’s earlier simple pleasures (some inventive action, some effective gore) are lost in a sea of self-seriousness. Grillo is an accomplished physical performer and effortlessly sells every single beat of his many action sequences but sadly doesn’t quite have the magnetic charisma of a leading man, most apparent when sharing the screen with an underserved Watts and an underused Michelle Yeoh (even Gibson, vile bigotry notwithstanding, has enough presence to blast him off the screen). A key problem with Grillo’s character is that he enters the time loop as an already expertly trained ex-special forces officer, so there’s not much satisfaction in seeing him go from skilled to even more skilled. One of the many pleasures of Doug Liman’s thrilling time loop sci-fi adventure Edge of Tomorrow was seeing Tom Cruise thrust into combat with no experience, watching him slowly improve, a progression we’re denied here, unmooring us from the chaos that unfolds.
As the umpteenth time loop movie we’ve seen of late, Boss Level never offers a convincing enough argument for the gimmick to be leaned on yet again, a mishmash of better movies blended into something a little bland. When in the last act, Watts’s scientist remarks that “this whole thing is so cobbled together”, one can’t help but agree.
Boss Level is released on Hulu on 5 March