(SPOILERS) Lest you thought it was nigh-on impossible to go wrong with a Groundhog Day premise, Joe Carnahan, in his swaggering yen for overkill, very nearly pulls it off with Boss Level. I’m unsure quite what became of Carnahan’s early potential, but he seems to have settled on a sub-Tarantino, sub-Bay, sub-Snyder, sub-Ritchie butch bros aesthetic, complete with a tin ear for dialogue and an approach to plotting that finds him continually distracting himself, under the illusion it’s never possible to have too much. Of whatever it is he’s indulging at that moment.
It’s Guy Ritchie who comes most to mind, though, since both tend towards a flashy, gangster-chic crime milieu. Ritchie, though – and I’m not trying to sing his praises, but he does sometimes come through – has a distinctive style and voice, however flawed it may be in terms of general worldview and maturity. Carnahan, ever since Smokin’ Aces (which looks positively well-conceived next to this) seems to have contented himself with a certain glorified vacuity signifying nothing (The A-Team, Stretch). That is, when he has actually got something off the ground (his career is littered with never-to-bes, including Mission: Impossible III, the Death Wish remake, Killing Pablo, White Jazz, Daredevil, Bad Boys 3). Or when he’s trying for something more (The Grey), he simply ends up looking like the best he has to say for himself is a streak of doleful nihilism. But manly with it. Always manly.
His movies tend to be quite well put together, and mostly quite watchable – although The Grey tested my patience once its trajectory became clear – but there’s a particular juvenilia involved that’s somehow more irksome than those of his kinetically-charged peers (the Bays, Snyders and Ritchies). Perhaps because he’s so discernibly aggressive with it, and so graceless is in his characterisations. Grillo seems like a good match for his tastes then, both inhabiting about the same level of B-chops in terms of stardom, projects, budget and critical ranking (they’re reteaming next for Copshop, with next-level B-player Gerard Butler. An embarrassment of semi-talents). Grillo’s the Stat to Carnahan’s Ritchie.
Frank is Roy Pulver, retired Delta Force hardman caught in a terminal loop of daily assassinations (his own, mainly), somehow – thickness, possibly – taking nearly three months’ worth of truncated days to realise his reset may just have something to do with ex Naomi Watts’ science experiments. The ones he was discussing with her just the night before, so surely quite fresh in his memory. She’s working for Mad Mel’s Colonel Clive Ventor, building an Osiris Spindle that will enable history to be rewritten (it’s like the Hadron Collider, but dinkier and involving less satanic rites on the premises). Realising she’s in danger, she slipped Roy into her spindle via his DNA or some such (it isn’t worth thinking too hard about, since it’s implausible enough that there’s a “plausible” explanation for the loop).
The reason Roy takes so long to get wise is that Carnahan wants to show us what a wag he is, with many-and-not-all-that-varied-actually, very violent stir-and-repeat deaths (of both Frank and his aggressors) in the time-honoured Groundhog Day fashion. Some of these are funny, some quite clever, but mostly there’s an off-putting sense of smugness, Carnahan resting on the laurels of believing this will work no matter what. Because – as I assumed – the Groundhog Day structure is pretty much a “can’t fail”. Instead, Boss Level veered at times, as Franks suggests, into territory where “It got fucking annoying”.
Fairly early on, we learn that Jemma (Watts) has been murdered, but obviously this can’t be so, or at any rate permanently, as she’s played by Watts. And even post-Book of Henry Watts isn’t quite reduced to fleeting cameos, even if playing Grillo’s ex is an undeniable climb down. Anyone would think she got more press for raising gender-stereotype-free children than acting. Accordingly, the movie’s emotional component is largely redundant, yet Carnahan feels obliged/is obliged to indulge it in a manner both pedestrian and trite – “I killed her when I ran from that relationship” – as Roy reconnects with Jemma and his son (Grillo’s actual son). There was a moment during the latter interaction when I wondered if we might be on the brink of plunging into a riff on Serenity (Roy Jr’s gaming cards Killville look rather like the array of assassins Frank is facing). But alas, that particular brand of genius was not to be.
Speaking of cameos, Mel’s presence is little more than a glorified one, in which he must undergo tediously meta-characterisation coding. I mean, Gibson’s accepting these parts, so he only has himself to blame (see also Dragged Across Concrete), but playing a character bemoaning “fucking liberals” and resolving a dispute over the place of origin of a sword with “Let’s not make this about race” is either baiting or foolishly assuming playing on one’s notoriety is a good idea. His major scene has Ventor relating a tale of a boa/boar encounter in 1979 Burma to Jemma (when Mel would have been a mere stripling of 23). He’s duly intimidating opposite his fellow antipodean, but Watts choices play as rather silly (she imitates his posture), and make you wonder other salient things, like how Jemma was so stupid in the first place as to take a job from Ventor, which further suggests she has fairly loose scruples, particularly if she’s willing to drop her ex in it.
There’s a sense of Carnahan magpie-ing elements and touches others have done much better. So there’s a “weirdo dwarf” (but with none of Martin McDonagh’s wit). Cliff Shorter’s synth theme suggests Stranger Things. There’s a Tarantino-esque sword-wielding assassin (“I am Guan Yin. Guan Yin has done this”), Selina Lo, and Roy must train up with Michelle Yeoh to beat her, except… he becomes a master in about 25 lessons? There’s a raft of irreverent dialogue, most of it poor, most notably “Harrison Ford had the shits” – why throw in one of Raiders’ best-known anecdotes, even among the hoi polloi, as if it’s a witty rejoinder? There are decent moments, of course, just as some of the action is decent – “I smell muffins. Do you smell muffins?” asks Will Sasso with a sword lodged in his forehead – but the proceedings are generally too noisy and busy, Carnahan clutching a grab bag of tunes including Burt Bacharach’s South American Getaway that serve to emphasise his ever-the-pretender-to-the-throne status.
Boss Level being what it is, Carnahan even throws in the end of the world, but he fails to make you care about any of it. If you only have one volume, it’s difficult to build anything, or ease off, or suggest subtler touches. It seems Blumhouse were called in to do that, offering a salvaging recut that they’re now in dispute over. Although frankly (grillo-ly), the released Boss Level seems exactly the kind of movie I’d expect Carnahan to deliver, so was the “disappointing and lacking in commercial appeal” original cut even more Carnahan-y? There’s also the problem that Grillo isn’t very loveable. I mean, he’s more personable than most of the B-grade ’80s/’90s action stars, but he isn’t adding anything singular to the material. He isn’t giving it a personality. And that’s the problem with Carnahan’s movies. They don’t have much personality, unless you count macho rattle.