From the original “D.O.A.” through “Run Lola Run,” there are no shortage of genuinely exciting thrillers in which a panicked lone protagonist had a very narrow window of time in which to find an elusive solution to the menace that suddenly threatens their lives and/or those of loved ones. But that template has been used more and more frequently in recent years, leaving a competent but uninspired exercise like “Level Up” most notable for the sense of déjà vu it generates.
Director/co-scenarist Adam Randall’s first feature sends Josh Bowman of ABC’s long-running intrigue “Revenge” scurrying around London on a mission to save his girlfriend from unknown kidnappers. Admirable as a demonstration of resourcefulness within modest budget confines, and watchable enough, this suspenser nonetheless fails to come up with anything original or memorable in the realms of plotting, atmosphere, or character invention. In the U.S., where it opens on 28 screens nationwide (half just one-off showings), “Level Up” looks likelier to attract viewers after its VOD launch a month later.
Bowman’s Matt is a shaggy, genial late-20s layabout allegedly working on an app with best mate Joel (Ben Bailey-Smith). In fact, he’s doing nothing much of anything save playing video games and drinking in the daytime, which is a source of exasperation for his gainfully employed squeeze Anna (Leila Mimmack). One morning just after she leaves for work, his sloth is interrupted by three men in ski masks who knock him out. Upon waking, Matt quickly absorbs that unless he delivers a mysterious “package” (in a locked metal box affixed to the heavy-duty vest he’s been strapped into), Anna will be killed. A series of text messages orders him to jump through one task-specific hoop after another, running around town, sometimes having to dodge violent strangers who may be on their own parallel life-or-death missions.
His travails at various points recall everything from Paul Bartel’s “The Secret Cinema” and David Fincher’s “The Game” to such more straightforward gimmicky thrillers as “Cellular” and the current “Nerve.” Randall and his collaborators set Matt scrambling through a diverting (as well as cost-effective) series of locations far off the standard tourist maps, from a weird Chinatown karaoke establishment and posh home to a council-flat drug den and the inevitable creepy warehouse.
But as it episodically flirts with absurdism, black comedy, and other offbeat flavors, “Level Up” seems to be simply trying on different attitudes without owning them. Even the basic narrative urgency feels like a formulaic device, and Matt’s realization that it’s all some sort of twisted “game” only reduces the emotional stakes further. Bowman makes an affable-enough harried protagonist, but the film doesn’t think to provide him with any more characterful depth than the various, more deliberately one-dimensional supporting figures that briefly flit in and out. Never fully convincing, the basic premise leads to a denouement that is presumably intended to leave us agog at a vast conspiracy, yet instead induces a “So, none of this really meant anything?” shrug.
Though its take-away impact may be flimsy, “Level Up” does suggest that Randall (whose feature debut follows several well-received shorts) has the facility and confidence to handle more substantial material, as well as a bigger budget. Design contributions are nimble, with the most notable factors being some enjoyably garish lighting effects (this is the kind of movie where a dingy basement might be awash in aquamarine and magenta hues for no discernible reason) in Eben Bolter’s widescreen cinematography, and a near-constant score by London electronica duo Plaid (Andy Turner and Ed Handley). One minor, affected irritant is the overuse of jump cuts in Kate Coggins’ otherwise efficient editing, particularly early on.