“They have an army, all I have is time. Yesterday was months ago.”
A movie or TV show doing a Groundhog Day (1993) concept has never really worked for me, so I was pleasantly surprised recently when two films were able to pull it off. The first was Palm Springs (2020), a charming rom-com, and the second was Boss Level (2021), a fun and knowingly goofy balls-to-the-wall actioner.
The movie opens with Roy Pulver (Frank Grillo) already well into reliving the same day over and over again. He treats an assassination attempt like a regular morning routine. Frank Grillo has been an underrated actor for a long time, and he brings a lot of the standard Grillo charm to this role. He’s a confident badass, but he also gets to shade it in a bit by being a little goofier and more of a dirtbag than his usual roles. The movie is narration-heavy, so we get to spend a lot of time with Roy dropping exposition on us or filling us in on his relationships, which could have been a drag if Grillo wasn’t the kind of guy you’d hang around at a barbecue and listen to any old bullshit he decided to spout. It also helps that most of the exposition happens over scenes of ridiculous action and mayhem.
Roy is living the same day over and over again. For some reason, a group of assassins are after him, including actors as varied as Selina Lo, Quinton “Rampage” Jackson and Rob Gronkowski. As much as he’s mastered anticipating their movements (the opening sequence is a very funny and well-choreographed fight scene of a bored Grillo going through the motions with his first would-be murderer) he can only get so far through the day before he always dies. So, like any normal person, he decides to chill out in a diner and get drunk while he waits for that to happen.
More backstory is introduced, including Jemma (Naomi Watts), an ex-wife doing secretive experiments for a shady lab, and her son Joe (Rio Grillo) who also happens to be Roy’s son. Joe just doesn’t know that yet. I wish Watts got more to do here, but the few scenes she shares with Grillo are entertaining and they have an easy chemistry. The relationship between Roy and Joe are really where the character work shines in the film and I think casting Grillo’s actual son probably helped here. They’re very natural and affecting. A moment near the end in particular, where Roy and Joe are sitting on a park bench together, really caught me off-guard with how realistic it was for such a goofy movie.
The assassins were all fun characters, even in their limited roles. Lo as Guan Yin is definitely the standout, always exclaiming “I am Guan Yin and Guan Yin has done this” every time one of the repetitions ends with her killing Roy. The assassins are a nice little throwback to Smokin’ Aces (2006) era Joe Carnahan, with much easier humor and pathos. I’ve always considered Carnahan underrated (I legitimately might be the world’s biggest/only fan of The A-Team (2010) movie) but he consistently puts out interesting films with well-staged action sequences, which is something we rarely get anymore.
A big thing hanging over the movie is Mel Gibson as the main villain, Clive Ventor. Gibson is such a liability at this point that it’s hard to watch his scenes in any movies without wondering if his value added is worth the flack that comes from casting a well-known bigot. He’s…. fine? Because he’s a good actor (bad person though) he does a good job, but it’s a relatively small part that could have been played by a number of less problematic actors without worrying about the headache of casting Gibson. On the flip side, there were two casting choices I think they absolutely nailed. Gibson’s main henchman Brett is played by Will Sasso. What a great use of a solid actor, mostly known for being funny! He does that here too, but it also makes great use of the fact that Sasso is a big guy. He towers over everyone he shares a scene with.
The other great casting choice was Michelle Yeoh as Dai Feng, a world-famous sword fighter. She really only has two big scenes in the film, but it’s really neat how we meet her early on and she’s built up in a mythical, reverent way and then we kind of forget about her until Roy needs something specific. It’s just awesome to see Yeoh being treated with the same kind of respect you’d give Jackie Chan or Jet Li or Sonny Chiba if you got them to be in a couple scenes of your movie.
I will say, my biggest issue with the film is the video game concept. It absolutely makes sense to connect that to the Groundhog Day concept and they try to connect it even further with Roy bonding with his son over video games, but it came off as half-assed and gimmicky to me. I think it’s good that more of the movie wasn’t stylized like that or mirrored video games in particular, but also it seems a little incomplete without a stronger connection to the story or style.
Ultimately, Boss Level is a big success in my eyes because it’s a star vehicle for Frank Grillo that uses his skills perfectly. While it drags sometimes when the exposition dumps get too big and the main villain is more generic than you’d expect in a fun film like this, it also has clear action, a solid heart and a ton of gratuitous violence. I’m sure they went through a hundred fake Frank Grillo heads and torsos, which is obviously a mark of quality in a movie like this.