Director Joe Carnahan has been one of the most fascinating filmmakers I’ve followed in the last two decades, having seen all of his movies sans his 1998 directing debut, Blood, Guts, Bullets and Octane. Carnahan definitely gets right down to the grit and gumption of his stories. They’re not all masterpieces, but they kick ass at levels that are wholly worth the attention of his viewing audience.
Often times though, that fact gets drowned out by a lot of bullshit, whether it’s Carnahan’s past Twitter fracas or the sheepish excuses of overweening film festival programmers who think a superhero movie about a latino crimefighter doesn’t come up to scratch (as documented in since deleted Tweets), or the blowback he gets for expressing views that reflect on matters of politics or just basic human decency, barring labels.
Funny thing about politics though: More often than not, it is inherently inescapable in many aspects of everyday living, especially with filmmaking and the business thereof. Carnahan can probably tell you first hand what that felt like in the years since the circus permeating the hampered theatrical release of his 2014 thriller comedy, Stretch, starring Patrick Wilson, Chris Pine and Jessica Alba – a delightful action comedy that deserved way better handling than it got.
This especially goes for the release date stalemate suffered by Carnahan’s latest film, Boss Level, beginning two years ago when Byron Allen’s Entertainment Studios missed its target release date. Indeed the film industry is a fickle business, and though I don’t know how often this kind of thing happens, it does happen. It shouldn’t. Stretch was exactly the kind of energizing and upbeat action thriller that plays well on its strengths, while telling a story that brims with heart at its very core. Boss Level inherently continues this tradition.
Part and parcel to this is, in my view, Carnahan’s industrial kinship with producing partner, actor Frank Grillo with whom he established production banner, WarParty Films back in 2016, and the WarChest fund a year later with a slate lined-up to go. To speak of the importance of camaraderie between a filmmaker, his star and his crew is no short order blurb, and anyone who watches movies, especially and particularly action movies, understands the weight of this very fact. Whether it’s Carnahan at the helm or sharing the table in a producing and/or writing capacity, it’s comforting to know that as good as Grillo provenly is on screen, whenever he’s on the set of a project with a friend at the wheel hitting the gas, the actor is having nothing short of the most fun. And it shows.
Already basking in the peaceful, albeit short-lived dormancy of his bed next to a woman he met the night prior, Boss Level’s unflinchingly saracastic and visbly fucking tired-of-it-all retired U.S. Army captain Roy Pulver is routinely awakened by the enduring blood lust of a small army of assassins hired to kill him, starting the machete-wielding Mr. Good Morning (Buster Reeves) and two other jackasses in a helicopter equipped with a minigun aimed directly into his apartment. Everyday is a moment-to-moment fight for his life whether he wants to live or not, whether he cares or doesn’t, and he seemingly has zero control over the outcome no matter what he does differently, hunted or even by accident.
The only upside here is out of the 144 times he’s been killed, he’s memorized nearly everything that happens and is said – from the moment he wakes up, to the time he even might try head to his favorite underground restaurant & bar where he’ll have just enough time to get completely shitfaced and numb before getting tracked by his personal killsquad, ripped to pieces in a hail of bullets, and left for dead with a half-ripped photo of his ex-wife, Jemma (Naomi Watts), in his hand. Not a minute sooner or later. That all changes, eventually, and Roy realizes it’s got plenty to do with the involvement of the company Jemma worked for, headed by an elitist deplorable Colonel named Ventor (Mel Gibson) who aspires to do his worst with an invention that could allow him to manipulate time and rewrite history – unless it destroys the world first.
For next several dozens of deaths though, Roy will have to refocus, restrategize and work each and everytime to one-up his contracted murders. These include outrunning Ventor’s meatheaded head of security, Brett (Will Sasso), gun-crazy Pam (Meadow Williams) and Esmerelda the Chauffer (Armida Lopez), a bomb-happy little person he calls Kaboom (Aaron Beelner), cheeky gun-toting burly German twins (Quentin “Rampage” Jackson and Rashad Evans), a redneck hick with a 4×4 and a mounted harpoon named Smiley (Michael Tourek) and some douchebag Roy-lookalike he dubs as “Roy Number Two” (Eric Etebari)…
AND THEN there’s motherfucking Guan Yin (Selina Lo)! Literally the worst among the crop, her supple athleticism, her speed and agility, and keeness with a sword every which way you don’t see coming no matter how many guns you come at her with, or how many bullets you think you can stack on your person, all make her a force to be reckoned with. It’s goddamn ridiculous. This woman has cut off Roy’s head more times than he even cares to count, and funny enough, she also happens to be the one person from the batty bunch whose name he actually remembers; Everytime she snatches the life out of him, she just HAS to peacock, announce herself, and profess her newest gory accomplishment before a gust of wind, and a glowing light from the heavens as if she were answering to a higher goddamn power. Without fail.
(It’s also interesting as hell that Carnahan would work in a little bit of fascinating science here pertaining to decapitation and the length of brain function thereafter. IJS. It’s wacky shit, and a pretty cool addendum to the spectacle and fun of it all.)
Throw in a little bit of Egyptian mythology to add to the film’s video game-themed narrative, an exuberant and fitting myriad of hit songs from the 60s and 70s wave of soul, rock and funk music with beats that slap, and a dose of touching family drama handily delivered in part by Grillo opposite his youngest of three children, Rio Grillo in his on-screen debut as Roy’s estranged son, Joey, and what you get with Boss Level is Carnahan at his continued finest. Of course, again, barring any inclinations of this being the best action movie ever if not thusfar, it’s certainly not for lack of trying, for a story host to a protagonist who is as flawed as he is demonstrably skilled.
Grillo’s Roy is partly described by Gibson’s nefarious wannabe supervillain Ventor as an “overachiever”. It certainly feels like the complete opposite when you meet him and his former significant other as they’re going back-and-forth during one scene at the Dynow labratory where Jemma works and is visibly trying to get Roy to see the urgency of what she’s trying to tell him. Predictably, he’s slow to put two-and-two together, and it doesn’t help that he’s easily susceptible to the charms of beautiful women. Indeed, whatever he’s achieved in surplus can be perceived as him “resting on his laurels” in a sense, which is why when at one point a bewildered Roy asks her what it is she wants, she tells him in no uncertain terms that she wants the man she fell in love with.
Therein lies the redemptive aspect of how Roy is written and characterized in Boss Level, exuding with just enough poignance to match with the film’s toughness and grit as a fun, splashy, gory extravaganza that doesn’t let up on its R-rated intent, nor interfere with its underlying messaging. Actors Ken Jeong and Sheaun McKinney bring feasible comedic support midway in the film, with actress Michelle Yeoh leaving enough of an impression for her limited screentime as an important character Roy will need along the way.
As far as the mechanics of this film here go, you can assert that Carnahan plays within a certain space that allows him to tell the story he wants, in a way that he wants. Admittedly, the third act midway does leave you wondering just a little bit if there’s going to be some kind of a twist that keeps things going and ups the stakes some. Boss Level does play it safe here, albeit at the risk of wearing out the story a just a teeny bit – although thankfully, what the film lacks at this point in momentum, it makes up for in simple, smart direction, avoiding any need for concern if whether or not Carnahan is overshooting the basket by the forth quarter buzzer.
Whatever your speed is in terms of the film’s flaws, whether it’s the action or visual effects, or even a certain casting choice, I concede that there are legit points to be made. Nevertheless, the fact is I’ve never not enjoyed a movie Carnahan has directed and/or produced, and certainly with Boss Level, it especially helps that the reactions making the rounds online from folks who’ve seen it and screened early it have been largely positive. Invariably, the consensus definitely seems to be in his favor.
Welp, I’ll tell you right now, this is the first Joe Carnahan-directed picture I’ve reviewed on here, or anywhere for that matter, and I’m happy to finally be part of the choir. I could bore you with the usual breathless, in-depth comparisons to Groundhog Day, Wanted, Source Code and Edge Of Tomorrow, or even Eric Jacobus’s martial arts comedy short faves, Rope-A-Dope 1 & 2. I won’t though, as I’m certain there are critics out there covering these bases right now, if not already.
Conclusively and to the point, Boss Level is an action movie steered with strong direction, a solid cast with Grillo wholly in his element, and levels of fun that rejuvenate nearly every step of the way.
Watch Boss Level exclusively on Hulu on March 5!