It’s not every action star who could be considered up-and-coming at 55, but it happens. Frank Grillo has been around for a while, but he didn’t start to break out until he was featured in a couple of “Purge” sequels (the first in 2014), where he played a lean-and-mean cop. While I wouldn’t necessarily call him boyish, with his thatch of glossy hair, easy grin that breaks into an equally easy grimace, and bedroom eyes, he’s like Ryan Seacrest’s macho older brother.
In “Boss Level,” he kicks ass all over the place, because he’s playing a man who keeps living the same insanely violent day over and over again. The movie, directed by the stylish genre trickster Joe Carnahan (“The A-Team”), is “Groundhog Day” redone as an action revenge movie, and by the time you’re a quarter of the way into it you’re thinking, “Why hasn’t anyone done this before?” Grillo, whose roots are in TV, doesn’t have the danger of a star like Jason Statham; he’s quick and smooth and breezy to watch. But that makes him the perfect actor to play a Delta Force agent stuck in a repeated loop of heavy-duty brutality that’s also lighter than air.
In “Palm Springs,” Andy Samberg plays a dude stuck in a repeated day — but unlike Bill Murray in “Groundhog Day,” who kept trying to change the day, improve it, and triumph over it, Samberg’s Nyles totally accepts that the day is simply going to repeat, with boring sameness, for eternity. Even if he tries to kill himself, it won’t work — he’ll just wake up in the same rerun. So life is meaningless. Each day he might be killed by an arrow. It doesn’t matter. Another day is coming, so his attitude is: Bring it.
“Boss Level” was shot in 2018, one year before “Palm Springs” (it’s been delayed due to assorted distributor mishaps), but in one way it echoes that film rather strikingly — not just because both draw on “Groundhog Day,” but because of the way that death (garish, over-the-top, WTF death) is used in both as a recurring structural punchline.
In “Boss Level,” the elaborate opening sequence, set to Boston’s “Foreplay/Long Time” (making great use of the moody neo-Emerson, Lake & Palmer intro), establishes the tropes of violent repetition we’ll be watching for the next 90 minutes, with Grillo’s too-perfectly-named-for-words Roy Pulver narrating and explaining the action. He’s already a jaded veteran of this repeated day, waking up in his loft apartment to face the assassin who’s been sent to kill him with a machete (that grunting goon is the film’s equivalent of a digital alarm clock going off); the hovering helicopter that fires into his living room with a machine gun; the chopper crashing into the loft; a fireball exploding “Die Hard”-style as Grillo leaps out the fourth-floor window; his fall onto the truck below; his carjacking of a rust-orange Dodge Challenger SRT, which then crashes into a bus; and he’s only just getting started.
Since “Groundhog Day,” close to 30 years after it was made, has finally become a genre (you’d better believe the floodgates for recycling it are going to be open now), each “Groundhog Day” knockoff has a way of stumbling onto its own metaphysical sci-fi cinematic metaphor. In the case of “Boss Level,” I’d say it’s this. Does Grillo’s Roy Pulver learn to take command of his repetitious day from hell, to rule over the action and defeat his enemies, to find redemption? Of course. But the film’s nearly unconscious sprinkle of wit is that it’s a revenge thriller that looks back over its shoulder to the cult-of-personality era when Sly and Arnold and Chuck and Bruce roamed the earth, and it’s also a tweak of those movies. Not a satire, exactly, but a film that acknowledges, in its very form, that action films have been showing us the same things over and over again for 40 years, and that the heroes triumph because they’re masters of a game they keep being forced to play.
The movie is, quite literally, a death-wish ride. Pulver meets every lethal encounter with impeccable blasé skill, since he’s memorized every move he’s going to face. Yet he keeps getting killed at random moments (beheaded, run over, shot in the face, bladed), and that’s okay. Each day his life ends by 12:47 p.m., but he’s still as invincible as Superman; all he has to do is wake up again. A team of assassins is on his tail, from the machete guy to a bomb-wielding dwarf to a Chinese martial artist in a beret (the latter played by the terrific Selina Lo), and he surfs through the threats, succumbing one way or another, until he decides to get to the bottom of what’s happening.
“Boss Level” has the heavily invested inconsequentiality of a video game. Pulver’s ex-wife, played by Naomi Watts, works for a security firm that has invented a time “spindle.” We know how sinister this omnicorp outfit is because it’s run by Mel Gibson, with powdery hair and a cutting manner of articulation.
At a certain point, each day starts to close with the world ending (yes, full Armageddon — don’t ask), but it’s just another violent trope. You’re grateful for the relatively relaxed scenes set in an underground Asian mall restaurant, where Pulver, if he gets past the first few killers, arrives each day to sit at the bar and order two bottles of Hong Kong Baijiu (which gives Ken Jeong, as the bartender, the chance to say “Hear ye, hear ye, Sir Osis!”). With the assistance of several bar patrons, notably the mystery woman in a booth played by Michelle Yeoh, Pulver figures out how to spin past his assailants and advance the narrative of his life. By the end of “Boss Level,” you may feel a lot like Pulver. Putting “Groundhog Day” on action steroids, the film has a patina of cleverness that’s pleasing enough, but you’ve seen it before. And you’ll see it again.