Boss Level (MA), 101 minutes, 4 stars
Since my other half got the new Playstation 5 I've been a Playstation widow. I understand that I have a partner, somewhere, but until Spiderman: Miles Morales is complete, it's just me and the world.
Since my significant other is often in the same room with eyes glued to the screen and fingers to the game console, it seems I've absorbed the language of gaming culture by osmosis.
So Joe Carnahan's new film Boss Level felt like a ton of fun, like opening a new game on release day. It's a high-octane thrill ride of violence and comedy that enjoys a strong visual aesthetic starting with its opening credits in 8-bit pixelated design, like an old game of Galaga or Space Invaders, and through a series of stylised action, fight and death scenes that repeat in colourful variations like a single-person shooter game you keep playing until you make it to the next level.
Its hero and protagonist Roy Pulver (Frank Grillo) is trapped in a time loop. Every morning he wakes up and eventually gets killed by a gang of assassins. For much of the film, I wondered whether Roy was really a character in a video game. Is Roy's daily time loop reboot just his game restarting?
Roy is a former Marine, a bad-ass, a muscled-up tough guy, quick with his fists and his wit. Roy is also former husband to scientist Jemma Wells (Naomi Watts), who is caught up working on a device called the Osiris Spindle for military weapons inventor Clive Ventor (Mel Gibson). The device isn't working and Ventor knows Jemma's ex-husband Roy is part of the problem.
And so, Ventor is responsible for the series of bad guys sent to dispatch Roy in an escalating cascade of violence, starting with the machete wielder who rudely wakes up Roy each morning. Also in the army of assassins are Alice and Pam (Annabelle Wallis and Meadow Williams) and Kaboom (Aaron Beelner), while Guan-Yin (Selina Lo) is a Chinese martial artist who juliennes Roy with a razor-sharp sword and some deft moves.
Helping Roy along the way are a handful of characters that cross his path with skills or smarts he can pick up across his many lives, including a fencing master (Michelle Yeoh) drinking at his local bar.
Since Groundhog Day perfected the time loop genre, a handful of films have played with genre in new or fun ways including Happy Death Day adding a dash of gore and the Tom Cruise film Edge of Tomorrow escalating the action stakes.
Like Edge of Tomorrow, in this film it takes Roy some time to work out what is happening to him, and then we get to enjoy him taking on new knowledge from every trip he has through his loop, progressing incrementally through his day and building an understanding of his situation and how he might resolve it.
Writer-director Joe Carnahan took a screenplay from brothers Chris and Eddie Borey and jacked up the action, with the result fun, if slightly predictable.
Grillo is just perfection. He isn't a household name but he ought to be and I hope this film goes some way toward addressing that. Grillo has been in many famous films, as the steady support playing against the lead actor and making them shine. He was in Captain America; Winter Soldier and worked for Carnahan previously in The Grey.
Gibson makes for a great and grizzled cartoony bad guy. Once upon a time, he was the Frank Grillo, the impossibly manly and charismatic lead. In fact, in the film Ransom it was Grillo that Gibson shot at the film's end. Here the tables have turned, with Grillo the hero.
There is a nice chemistry between Watts and Gibson in their few scenes together, and Grillo's real-life son Rio plays Roy's son, with their scenes together playing very sweet.
The film's biggest star is fight choreographer Bryan Sloyer. The fight scenes cross genres and fighting styles, and get replayed with minute variations as we see Roy work his way through confrontations with the different assassins and then come back to try new techniques to defeat them.
It's as fun as playing an Xbox or PlayStation game without the risk of carpal tunnel syndrome.