‘Boss Level’ Review: ‘John Wick’ Meets ‘Groundhog Day’ In A Clever Genre Hybrid

‘Boss Level’ poster

Joe Carnahan’s violent action comedy time loop flick again shows that the best video game movies are the ones not actually based on video games.

Threatening to get lost amid the flurry of higher-profile new releases, Boss Level (debuting today on Hulu) is an oddly timely action-comedy hybrid that combines two in-vogue sub-genres. The film is yet another time-loop flick, popularized by Groundhog Day in early 1993 and currently fashionable thanks to the likes of Happy Death Day, Edge of Tomorrow, Before I Fall and Palm Springs. Moreover, as makes sense for this kind of time loop flick, the story is essentially a live-action video game.

While we all debate whether the video game-based movie curse is still a real thing (Rampage, Sonic and Detective Pikachu were all well-liked hits), the “video game movie that isn’t based on a video game” sub-genre has been flourishing for years. Think, offhand, John Wick, Sucker Punch, Hardcore Harry, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, Inception and Run Lola Run. Joe Carnahan’s caper concerns a retired special forces officer (Frank Grillo, playing to type) who gets stuck in a time loop concerning copious colorful assassins attempting to murder him.

Our hero gets further and further in his doomed day as he continuously dies and restarts while learning more about the circumstances of his predicament on each attempt. As revealed pretty early on, his conundrum concerns his ex-wife (Naomi Watts) and his ex’s seemingly villainous superior (Mel Gibson, in frankly an underwritten glorified cameo). Dr. Jemma Wells discovered something sinister about Colonel Clive Victor, and, in true Darkman fashion, her former husband gets marked for death as a result.

Cue a series of comically violent action movie set-pieces. Whether he can save the day and reconnect with his estranged family is a mystery I’ll leave you to discover. The film doesn’t come right out and say that it’s a video game-inspired romp. However, some of the tropes are there and a key subplot involving Roy’s son and a ditch day spent at a nostalgic arcade filled with eight-bit classics and arcade cabinets.

Running a lean 86 minutes before credits, the quippy and snappy little romp diversifies its action beats (even while repeating the same day with many of the same locations). It uses the convenience of its repetitious structure to ensnare a surprisingly stacked cast. Watts and Gibson spend most of their screen time in a single locale, while a local eatery provides convenient extended cameos from Michelle Yeoh (as a patron who eventually teaches Roy how to fend off Selina Lo’s sword-wielding mercenary) and Ken Jeong (as the owner of Noodles Cafe).

Gibson is, relatively speaking, the only disappointment, given only one scene to really “act” (in a conventional “I’m doing bad things for good reasons” speech). He’s still engaging and amusing (there’s a reason he still gets work), but there’s little of the meta self-reflection of his post-scandal performances (even Daddy’s Home 2 cast him as the slow-burn villain whose self-destructive behavior threatens to create collateral damage) over the last decade. Granted, that’s not what this movie is about.

Boss Level is mostly a reason for its repetitious action sequences, and in that sense it works. The repeat antagonists have character and charm to spare, while Grillo wisely lets the movie play out around him. The ways in which the movie uses the time loop for character development are predictable but still effective, even if a third-act upswing in stakes becomes quite unnecessary.

In development since 2012 and intended for release back in 2019 courtesy of Entertainment Studios before being sold to Hulu, Boss Level delivers exactly what it promises with as much production value and spectacle as a $45 million budget provides these days. Yeah, the whole time loop thing (and chatter about fixing the past versus learning from prior mistakes) feels accidentally relevant in our Covid-era repetition. Moreover, Boss Level once again that the best video game movies aren’t actually based upon video games.

I’ve studied the film industry, both academically and informally, and with an emphasis in box office analysis, for nearly 30 years. I have extensively written about all