It’s been nearly seven years since Joe Carnahan’as last film, but the stylistic hallmarks of his work remain unmistakable. The director of muscular genre fare has always had a feel for composition and camera movement a cut above some of his peers. In movies like “Smokin’ Aces” and “The Grey,” he achieved a level of impressionistic immersion through rapid editing, but never sacrificed clarity and continuity — the action in his movies always makes spatial sense, even if it’s the camera bobbing above the whitecaps of a roaring river, as Liam Neeson gets half-drowned in some deadly rapids.
That knack for clarity and continuity makes Carnahan an ideal fit for a time-loop movie. And “Boss Level,” a passion project he’s been developing since at least 2012, is a solid one. Frank Grillo stars as Roy, an ex-Special Forces badass so committed to tracking down evildoers in the line of duty that he neglected the one woman he really loved, a theoretical physicist named Jemma (Naomi Watts) in charge of a secret project, and their son together. In fact, their son, though well into elementary school, doesn’t even know that Roy’s his dad. Though it’s implied he’s a workaholic, Roy also plays hard: as indicated by his Aviators, his Rick Dalton jacket, and that he’s spent the night with the dental hygienist who worked on his teeth the day before.
The movie opens with Roy already in the aforementioned loop. As with the original script for “Groundhog Day” and, more recently, “Palm Springs,” Roy has been doing this for a while. The loop unfolds a couple times, with Grillo merely giving voiceover explanation telling you everything that’s already transpired many times before. It’s inelegant storytelling — telling rather than showing — even as the action onscreen is exciting, and it’s easy to wish Carnahan and his screenwriters had found a more creative way into it.
Then again, “Boss Level” is a movie committed to explaining every last little detail and making each seemingly insignificant plot point “fit.” There happens to be a Chinese sword master (Michelle Yeoh) at the bar where Roy goes to drown his sorrows. You know she’s going to end up training him before this thing is done. That’s because Roy isn’t just trapped in a time loop; he’s being pursued by assassins in said loop who want his head — one of them quite literally. They’ve been sent by Jemma’s boss, played by a subdued Mel Gibson who seems to be channeling David Carradine in the “Kill Bill” movies with an Ambien twist. It’s surprising how understated he is in this performance, even when literally snarling “Fuck liberals!” (He is, of course, the “boss” of the title.)
Videogames obviously have time-loop storytelling in their DNA, and “Boss Level” does emerge as an effective way of replicating gaming tropes onscreen. Roy doesn’t learn to be a better person, like Murray in “Groundhog Day.” (Well, he comes to care for his son, at least, so there’s that.) He’s really more about refining himself into the ultimate killing machine. That means that the stakes actually seem to lower a bit as the movie progresses. He becomes so good at what he does, none of the supporting characters — including, apparently, Rob Gronkowski, who this Buccaneers fan somehow missed — end up really popping, even despite some fun quirks and catchphrases here and there. Roy is the player character and everyone else is an NPC. It may not be the most exciting narrative approach, but “Boss Level” seems more keen on capturing a gaming aesthetic than anything more traditionally cinematic.
After all, Grillo’s Roy certainly qualifies more as a “player character” than a “character.” The subjective identification one feels for their digital avatar when playing a shooter or RPG is much like what you feel for this kill-happy guy. You wince when he has to use pliers to extract his own molar. Laugh when he tosses off “This is for the Jews” when blowing away a Hitler fetishist. Warm to him when he bonds with his son over a game of “Street Fighter.” And find it pretty damn satisfying as he starts “learning” how not only to survive, but end this cycle altogether. Since that’s his mission, “Edge of Tomorrow” might come to mind as a point of comparison: though beloved of Tom Cruise fans, including this one, most wouldn’t say that’s one of his greatest star roles — the concept comes first. Grillo never lets his character get subsumed by the concept. Quite an achievement to unlock.
The 55-year-old actor, so menacingly charismatic in “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” (not to mention “Warrior,” “The Grey,” and TV series from “The Shield” to “Prison Break”) proves how very much he deserves the spotlight in “Boss Level.” He’s the only character you care about, but you do end up caring about him a lot. It’s a star part, and Grillo commands it. Most importantly, he gets you to invest in Roy enough that, even without a controller in your hands, you never feel like you’re simply watching someone else play a videogame. With no pixels in sight, Grillo gives “Boss Level” the thing most videogame movie riffs lack: a pulse.
“Boss Level” will be available to stream on Hulu starting on Friday, March 5.