The hyperviolent Boss Level is Groundhog Day meets Grand Theft Auto

Frank Grillo gets stuck in a gratuitously bloody time loop in the video game-esque action romp Boss Level (now in cinemas). Here’s critic Travis Johnson’s review.

Everyone sometimes falls into a funk where every day seems just like the last, but not to the extent that former Navy SEAL Roy Pulver (Frank Grillo) has. Every day he’s awoken by an assassin sent to kill him with a machete and spends the rest of his waking hours fending off helicopter gunships, a sword-swinging Chinese murderess (Selina Lo), various hitmen and hired guns, and even a little person with a bomb (Aaron Beelner).

Inevitably, one of his assailants succeeds in offing him, and our hero is back where he started, with the swing of a deadly blade subbing in for Groundhog Day’s I Got You, Babe. What is going on and how can he break the cycle?

Coming to us courtesy of director and co-writer Joe Carnahan (The A-Team, Narc), Boss Level trucks in the language of video games, and its concept—relatable guy trapped in a hyperviolent open sandbox game world—presages the delayed Ryan Reynolds vehicle Free Guy. Except while that film looks to be focusing on a video game NPC who comes to consciousness, Boss Level sees Grillo, a guy born to play any number of retired soldiers, grizzled cops, and assorted macho men, as basically Max Payne in a reflective mood, lamenting a lost wife (Naomi Watts) and a bad relationship with his son while blasting his way through hordes of mooks on his way to big bad Colonel Ventor (Mel Gibson having fun even when saddled with dialogue, which isn’t nearly as clever as Carnahan thinks it is).

The whole thing is enjoyable enough, even though the eventual reveal isn’t much of a mind-blower. The time loop subgenre (Groundhog Day, Edge of Tomorrow, Palm Springs, et al) demands either a reality-shattering reveal or an existential lack of explanation, but here the mechanics of Pulver’s predicament are underwhelming.

Luckily, Boss Level has other strengths. One is a real handle on the anarchic, hyperviolent nature of video games along the Max Payne-Grand Theft Auto axis, replete with OTT weapons and explosions, grotesque violence that borders on the nihilistic, and a lax approach to physics. The other is a fun, game cast that includes comedian Will Sasso, The Mummy co-star Annabelle Wallis, Ken Jeong, and MMA fighter-turned-actor Quinton “Rampage” Jackson (he was B.A. Baracus in Carnahan’s A-Team movie).

But the real gem here is Grillo. Long a favourite of action movie fans who have never let the stigma of a direct-to-home release get between them and the potential for some inventive violence, Grillo has so far been unable to attain even Statham-level popular success, despite strong turns in fare like The Grey, Beyond Skyline and Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Here he’s front and centre for almost the entire film—plus tasked with delivering voice-over —and he makes a real fist of it. Grillo’s a tough, amiable, engaging screen presence more than capable of anchoring a film; hopefully casting directors will take note of that going forward. If nothing else, a buddy movie with fellow B movie veteran Jon Bernthal would surely be worth a ticket.

Brash, brutal and smart enough to wink at the audience, Boss Level is a gratuitously bloody popcorner that never pushes the boundaries of the action idiom, but should please genre-savvy fans just the same.