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Hulu’s time-loop story Boss Level gets tired of its own plot before it even starts

These Groundhog Day followers are becoming too self-aware for their own good

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Roy Pulver stands in front of a high-tech device. Photo: Quantrell D. Colbert/Hulu

Hulu’s new movie Boss Level begins with a self-aware nod: Yeah, you’ve seen time-loop stories before. So has protagonist Roy Pulver (Frank Grillo). He’s woken up nearly 150 times so far to a man swinging a machete at him. At this point, Roy can disarm his antagonist with ease, casually stroll through the hail of bullets coming from the attack chopper outside, and leap from his window to survive the explosion that levels his apartment every time. Roy tells the audience this through sardonic, almost irritated narration — he’s tired of this shit, living through the same day over and over again. It’s quite likely that before Boss Level ends, anyone watching it will be tired of it too.

One of the worst feelings to have when watching an action movie is the sinking realization that the first fight scene on offer is the best one in store. Boss Level desperately needs that kind of novelty, because it’s so familiar. There have been many time-loop movies at this point, with several new ones hitting streaming services over the course of the last calendar year, including the YA drama The Map of Tiny Perfect Things, the romantic comedy Palm Springs, and the micro-indie The Obituary of Tunde Johnson. It’s becoming an overly familiar conceit in general. The best ones layer another genre twist on top of the central time loop, using the repetition to examine ideas and characters from all angles. Boss Level doesn’t really have that. It’s mostly a movie with designs on over-the-top action that are undercut by the actual action.

Directed by Joe Carnahan, Boss Level was originally announced in 2012, not long after the release of Carnahan’s Liam Neeson survival film The Grey. Then called Continue, the film languished for years until it finally entered production in 2018 for a 2019 release, only to be dropped by its distributor and picked up by Hulu two years later. This may explain why the movie feels so stale.

The plot is blissfully lean nonsense. Roy Pulver is a former Delta Force operative with an ex working on a top-secret tech project that initiates the time loop. Once it begins, Roy is targeted by a small army of assassins, each with their own cartoonish and insensitive aesthetic. (A little man nicknamed Kaboom loves blowing Roy up; an Asian woman named Guan Yin uses a sword.) Given his hundred-plus days of practice, he’s gotten pretty good at getting the upper hand, but only for a while — by 12:47 p.m., someone always kills him, and he starts again. Then one day, he learns there might be a way to end the loop, and he tries to figure out how to get past his literal deadline.

In a lot of ways, Boss Level feels like a throwback. Roy is an ’80s action hero with a cooler jacket and a better haircut, and Frank Grillo is arguably the closest thing we have to an action-movie star in that mold, with the misfortune of arriving at a time where there just aren’t many big movies to fit his particular bill. This one is rife with macho humor, with some jokes in poor taste (a joke about a whiny dude Roy frequently carjacks who yells at “date rape volume”), some that land better (Roy taking offense when he runs into an assassin that looks just like him) and some that don’t sound that funny, but kind of work in context (Roy’s shock and disgust at an assassin that claims she uses a gun owned by Hitler).

Six assassins prepare to gun down Roy Pulver, seated at a bar. Photo: Quantrell D. Colbert/Hulu

It’s also a throwback in its casting of Mel Gibson as its villain. His role is so thin, it could’ve been played by anyone. Instead, it’s another entry in Gibson’s late-2010s slow-walk back to acting acceptance, following his public 2006 bout with alcoholism that ended in an anti-Semitic tirade, and the uncontested charges of domestic violence leveled at him in 2010, involving another reported racist rant.

Gibson’s role drags down the whole enterprise, overshadowing the fact that Boss Level’s entire cast is already a strange assemblage of barely used talent. Naomi Watts fills the thankless role of Roy’s ex, Jemma. Michelle Yeoh makes a small appearance as a sword-fighting instructor in a scene removed from most of the film’s action. Ken Jeong appears as a bartender — that part’s actually fine, unless you dislike Ken Jeong. Rob “Gronk” Gronkowski is also somewhere in the film; trying to spot him is a fun game.

None of this is well-served by Boss Level’s time loop, and it isn’t long before Roy’s exhaustion with the rigamarole of staying alive in a world trying to kill him transfers to the audience. There’s no compelling mystery behind the time loop, and the pleasure of seeing Roy wise up and get the upper hand over his many opponents only rises to the level of mildly entertaining, thanks to uninspired choreography and washed-out visual effects. The mid-movie introduction of Roy’s son, who doesn’t know his father’s identity, doesn’t really add any emotional substance, but it does add a scene where Roy has to spout video game lingo in an attempt to relate to him, so maybe it’s worth it.

What is interesting about Boss Level is its accidental timing — not in the way it arrived after nearly a year of pandemic-fueled misery where every day feels the same, but in how it’s snuck onto the same streaming service as Palm Springs, a movie that’s fun to watch partially because it acknowledges how familiar time loops are. Palm Springs acknowledges that a self-aware time-loop story needs something else to regard beyond its own patterns, and puts that energy into its central romance. If it didn’t, the result would be something like Boss Level — a movie that acknowledges it’s not the only time loop in town, and wonders why we even have them in the first place.

Boss Level is now streaming on Hulu.

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