Film Review: ‘Boss Level’: A ‘No Pain, No Gain’ Time-Looper Movie

April 5, 2021 Updated: April 8, 2021

TV-MA | | Action, Mystery, Sci-Fi | 5 March 2021 (USA)

Remember when the 1960s zombies used to stagger around, real slow-like? And 2000’s “28 Days” gave us 100-yard-dash zombies—that was very scary. When an idea makes money in Hollywood, every last permutation and combination of that new genre gets mined for more ducats.

Now time-loop movies abound; it’s rapidly approaching the oversaturation point. Kicked off by 1993’s now-legendary “Groundhog Day,” we just reviewed the teen rom-com time looper “The Map of Tiny Perfect Things,” and now here comes a sci-fi action thriller version already, “Boss Level,” for the demographic of boys-who-love-video-games.

man in brown leather jacket in "Boss Level"
Frank Grillo plays ex-Army Delta Force operator Roy Pulver in “Boss Level.” (Quantrell D. Colbert/Hulu)

Why Grillo?

Frank Grillo’s fun. What’s Grillo got? Amazing pompadour’d hair. If ever there was an actor who could make that ubiquitous male actor statement about a given role: “I’ve got the hair for it”—it’s him. He’s also got a Wolverine-type ripped torso, a commanding screen presence, and he’s action-hero quippy, with a New York-accented, Italian flair. He’s best known for playing the Marvel villain Brock Rumlow.

two men ready to knife fight in "Boss Level"
Ex-Army Delta Force operator Roy Pulver (Frank Grillo, L) and Mr. Good Morning (Buster Reeves), in “Boss Level.” (Quantrell D. Colbert/Hulu)

“Boss Level” is similar to “The Map of Tiny Perfect Things” in that Roy Pulver (Grillo) doesn’t have the buildup to the time loop in “Groundhog Day”; he’s already waking up with his repeating day’s choreographed moves already in full swing.

But whereas the male lead in “The Map of …” keeps waking up just as his mom is pulling away in a car, former Delta Force operative (what else?) Roy’s first move after opening his eyes in bed is ducking a machete whack to the head delivered by an assassin.

While dispatching said assassin using a variety of hand-to-hand options, one of which includes the scalding-coffee-to-the-face splash, a helicopter pulls up outside Roy’s window, the door gunner of which opens up on him with a 50-caliber lead shower. The gunner looks familiar. No, it can’t be! It is. It’s none other than Super Bowl LV winner, Buccaneer wide receiver Rob Gronkowski being an actor. Awesome.

And then a motley crew of assassins chase Roy around all day, two of whom are an unlikely pair of hulking black men speaking German. They look familiar … No! It can’t be! It is. They are UFC cage-fighting legends Quinton “Rampage” Jackson and Rashad Evans being actors. Awesome.

a packed elevator in "Boss Level"
(L–R) Quinton “Rampage” Jackson, Selina Lo, Michael Tourek, Aaron Beelner, Meadow Williams, Eric Etebari, and Rashad Evans in “Boss Level.” (Quantrell D. Colbert/Hulu)

Here’s the thing … what thing? You know the thing. We hold these truths to be self-evident that, per the time-loop law, no matter what Roy does, he’ll be killed exactly at 12:47 p.m. daily. And then he’ll wake up in bed having to duck that machete whack, ad infinitum.

Roy meets his Maker many different ways; there’s not a lot of margin for error in his day. If his timing is off by a split second, he gets whacked.

man and woman sword fight in "Boss Level"
Ex-Army Delta Force operator Roy Pulver (Frank Grillo) and Guan Yin (Selina Lo), in “Boss Level.” (Quantrell D. Colbert/Hulu)

He’s beheaded several times by the katana-wielding assassin Guan Yin (Selina Lo), who, with the vigorous compulsiveness of a kitty-litter-scratching cat, proclaims, “I am Guan Yin, and Guan Yin has done this.” When katana-loving Quentin Tarantino sees “Boss Level,” he’ll likely spit his beer through his nose, brush Dorito crumbs off his T-shirt, and do a raise-the-roof toast to director and co-writer Carnahan, wishing he’d coined the Guan Yin line for Lucy Liu in “Kill Bill.”

How’d Roy Get Here Anyway?

Without spoiling it, let’s just say that Roy’s being used as lab rat in a scientific experiment run by his ex-wife, Dr. Jemma Wells (Naomi Watts), all of which starts to come to light when Roy runs into his estranged son Joe (played by Grillo’s real-life young son Rio) competing in a 1980s-style arcade game tournament.

Which suddenly explains the movie title. “Boss Level” means a time loop is like a video game! And you rise in levels until you get so good at it, you reach Boss level!

small boy with headphones in "Boss Level"
Joe Pulver (Rio Grillo), in “Boss Level.” (Quantrell D. Colbert/Hulu)

His wife is working on a top-secret military project, and her boss, Col. Clive Ventor (Mel Gibson), decapitates the relentless, pesky Roy a few times himself. This would be where “Boss Level” marries up with military-tinged time-loop movies “Source Code” and “Edge of Tomorrow.”

two men in fighting stances in "Boss Level"
Former Delta Force operator Roy Pulver (Frank Grillo, L) and Colonel Ventor (Mel Gibson), in “Boss Level.” (Quantrell D. Colbert/Hulu)

It’s a stellar cast for such a silly movie, most of whom are understandably underused: Naomi Watts blathering “time-space continuum” jargon is a waste of talent.

What You Get

The thing that’s fun about time-loop movies is that they’re metaphors for human reincarnation, with each repeating day standing in as an accelerated version of a lifetime. And we enjoy seeing the characters work toward a specific goal by using the practice-makes-perfect opportunity of day do-overs. Roy’s do-overs are seriously painful. But funny, too.

two men grabbing each other's jackets in "Boss Level"
Ex-Army guy Roy Pulver (Frank Grillo, L) and a man whose car he steals (Joe Knezevich), in “Boss Level.” (Quantrell D. Colbert/Hulu)

The thing that time-loop movies get wrong, when compared to actual writings by various sages on the topic of reincarnation, is that the characters always remember what they learned the previous day. According to reincarnation literature, however, when humans reincarnate, our memories are always erased—very few people can remember past lives.

And the human quest would appear to always be about spiritual enlightenment. Roy’s time-loop quest is that he wants to get his son and wife back. But the ultimate human quest throughout repeating incarnations is to jettison all karma and ascend to a heavenly paradise, and finally get some peace and quiet.

Which is where the phrase “If not now, when?” comes from, because we might not remember what earthly existence is meant for the next incarnation. It might take us a thousand lifetimes to figure out that human life is not for making money and buying stuff, but about exiting the reincarnation cycle with alacrity. And because our memories are automatically erased each time, another enlightenment quote says: “A man who seeks enlightenment should seek it like a man whose hair is on fire seeks a pond.” Because it could take forever before we figure it out again.

I’m waiting for the time-loop movie where the lead character can’t remember what happened the day before. It’s potentially a long movie. But they could solve that by using those screen updates, like, 7,428,563 lifetimes later

man and woman in diner boothe in "Boss Level"
Dai Feng (Michelle Yeoh), a sword-fighting instructor, and ex-Army Delta Force operator Roy Pulver (Frank Grillo), in “Boss Level.” (Quantrell D. Colbert/Hulu)

‘Boss Level’
Director: Joe Carnahan
Starring: Frank Grillo, Naomi Watts, Mel Gibson, Michelle Yeoh, Selina Lo, Rio Grillo
Running Time: 1 hour, 34 minutes
Rating: TV-MA
Release Date: March 5, 2021, streaming on Hulu
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Follow Mark on Twitter: @FilmCriticEpoch