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Boss Level Review: Groundhog Day For Action Fans

Time loop movies are coming at audiences these days with such an increased frequency that moviegoers might feel like they're trapped in one of their own. But despite the increasingly familiar plot device, Boss Level is a ton of fun, impressive both with its action and its darkly comic sensibilities. It's a star-making turn for Frank Grillo, and the sort of film that will likely develop its own devoted cult of fans, eager to put another quarter in the machine and play this shoot-'em-up game again and again.

The film is centered around Grillo's Roy Pulver, the sort of ex-military badass that says things like: "Liam Neeson? He's a fake tough guy. I'm the real guy." That theory is put to the test immediately, as Roy wakes up to an action scene playing out in his apartment: machete-wielding hitman, helicopter with machine guns blazing outside the window, no time for breakfast. We quickly learn that this is how Roy has woken up every day for months, as his life has been skipping like a record, with the same bloody ending happening over and over.

A big part of his daily downfall comes at the hands of a crew of eccentric assassins who all feel like deleted scenes from Kill Bill. He assigns funny names to many of the killers (because although they've murdered him dozens of times, he's never had the chance to engage them in small talk): Kaboom the bomb-loving little person, sword-wielding Guan Yin (whose name means "goddess of mercy" and is anything but), hillbilly Smiley, the German twins — and Roy number 2, who inexplicably looks just like him. Boss Level is written and directed by Joe Carnahan, and as those who remember his Smokin' Aces will attest, the man knows how to craft depraved, memorable mischief-makers.

As anyone who has seen Groundhog Day, Edge of Tomorrow, Palm Springs, Happy Death Day, or even the Huey, Dewey and Louie segment of Mickey's Once Upon a Christmas will tell you, eventually the protagonist needs to figure out a way to escape the time loop; it's almost always just a theory, and it almost always proves true. Roy's theory slowly comes together: his ex-wife (Naomi Watts, in a thankless role) was working on a time-travel machine, she was killed by a gang of military-adjacent murderers led by Colonel Clive Vector (Mel Gibson), so perhaps she put him in this loop so he could keep replaying events until he manages to save the day?

If you can't tell by the title, Boss Level takes on all the trappings of gamer culture, making it feel as though Roy is our avatar and each villain a level to be conquered. If he mistimes the leap from a building, gets hit by a bus or beheaded by a baddie (which he does frequently), it's no big deal; in a moment, we know the game will reload, he'll wake up in his apartment, and there will be another life to play with. As he's ripping out his own teeth with a pair of pliers, telling an observer "Don't worry, it'll grow back," the movie hits an infectiously fun sweet spot that feels like Run Lola Run meets Groundhog Day, with a pinch of Crank for seasoning.

Honey, I'll do the dishes tomorrow

The movie's trappings are fully embraced, as a videogame-like graphic says "in progress" whenever the level is repeating; flashbacks are labeled by their attempt number. A key sequence in the film has Roy visiting a pop-up arcade where games like Street Fighter are cited. There's a gag involving a busboy who slips and falls down (a likely homage to the waiter dropping the dishes in Groundhog Day), and even a section where Roy gives up and just keeps opting for death, bringing to mind the visual of Bill Murray driving his groundhog over a cliff.

Looking beyond the genre cliches, a good time loop film depends on strong editing and varied takes from the actors. Boss Level has both, as the film is blessed with a fun, frenetic editing style that adds a sense of urgency, while throwaway jokes like a carjacking victim's shriek are replayed in enough variations to make "Needlenose" Ned Ryerson proud.

The real winner here is Grillo, who has spent the last couple decades establishing himself as a recognizable Hollywood tough guy, but has never before had this kind of showy opportunity. Obviously, the guy has the moves to make it seem reasonable that he could out-shoot, out-fistfight, and out-swordfight any number of advancing enemies, but Boss Level allows him to show he's a lot more than six-pack abs and a New York attitude.

Grillo's Roy has a much-needed sense of humor about his predicament, and it makes his narrations a lot of fun. But he also has some tender moments with the ex-wife and child (Rio Grillo, not only Frank's son in real life but quite possibly the most adorable kid actor in the world) he's desperately trying to save. Grillo also gets numerous takes to die the same way, deliver the same line, kill the same enemies, and never seems to run out of inventive variations on the theme.

Game over

The only time Boss Level slows down, ironically enough, is when it gets to the boss. Gibson's Vector is fine enough as far as cigar-chomping, monologue-loving villains go, but when he starts getting into the weeds with Watts' storyline, things slow noticeably. Why does Vector want to control time? How did Roy's ex-wife build a time machine with only slightly more effort than most of us would expel on a piece of IKEA furniture? Why does the world not "end" some days, but end on other days? Boss Level seems uninterested in exploring such questions — and with Roy's repeated deaths being so much more fun, that's probably for the best.

The movie also undermines itself with certain choices defining the rules of the game, oddly becoming its own worst enemy. For no discernible reason, if Roy does save his family and break the time loop, he'll still need to make it through the day one last time. When he asks a villain where his dead wife is, it turns out she's lying on the ground just a few feet away. When he asks an expert swordsman for tutelage, we see them training for what would surely encompass an entire day, but we never see how (or more specifically, why) those days end. Also, since Gibson's baddie is only occasionally aware of what's going on, he's unable to harness the time-travel repetition to his advantage, stacking the deck against him.

But when the film ends, you won't remember all that. What sticks with you is the moments, like the guy with a sword in his forehead who asks if anyone else can smell muffins, the comeuppance of an assassin who proudly wields Hitler's gun, or Roy's ill-advised attempt to leap his speeding car off the top of a parking garage. If you want to watch such action-packed, dark humor played out... again and again and again... this flick is a level up.