Saturday, March 6, 2021


Boss Level is only the third film in ten years from Joe Carnahan. As more a fan of his work than not, it’s frustrating that, of all his potential major projects that don’t get off the ground, this is his second in a row that’s basically tossed off and ignored. His last film, the loopy, uneven one-crazy-night crime comedy Stretch, was unceremoniously dumped direct to DVD just before its supposed theatrical bow all the way back in 2014. This new one — yet another Groundhog Day riff, this one with assassins at its core — has slipped onto Hulu with a shrug. Sure, it doesn’t work as well as his grimy Detroit cop thriller Narc or steely survival thriller The Grey does. It’s not even quite up to his cartoony guns-blazing action extravaganzas The A-Team or Smokin’ Aces. But there are car chases and sword fights that prove he still has a terrific sense of pace and space, cooking up overheated action in simple broad strokes across a wide frame. Yet the final balance is underwritten and too snarkily exaggerated to really land. It stars dependable man of action Frank Grillo as a ripped guy who finds himself in a time loop wherein he’s murdered by assassins. So many assassins. (It’s an eccentric ensemble which somehow accommodates both Michelle Yeoh and Rob Gronkowski.) Our lead starts his day with a machete swung toward his bed. If he survives, a machine gun tears up his apartment. If he survives that, he might be gunned down in the street or decapitated on an escalator. You get the idea. Eventually, he realizes it has something to do with his ex (Naomi Watts) and her dastardly boss (Mel Gibson). There’s also a subplot involving a moppet (Grillo’s actual son) who needs a positive male role model in his life. Turns out, the real Boss Level…is fatherhood. So the movie is stuck in two modes, outrageous flippant jokey gory violence on the one hand, sweet stuff about reconnection and growth on the other. The movie is far too bloody for the sentimentality, and far too sentimental for all the blood. It has flashes of teasing genre fun, but trudging through a wobbly smirking tone to get there is a bit much to ask.

Speaking of directors with careers I’m puzzling over: idiosyncratic French auteur Quentin Dupieux. He’s an original for sure. Read about one of his movies and you know it’ll be odd. The experience of watching one usually has identical pleasures to reading the log line. You hear Rubber is a bone-dry slasher satire about a sentient tire that rolls around exploding human’s heads. Watching the movie back in 2010 or so, the main thought I had was: yep, that sure is what this is. Ditto his most recent, Deerskin, a movie about a man who becomes a serial killer at the behest of his new jacket. Yep. That sure is what that is. I like his work in theory, but in practice it wears a little thin on my patience. Just now arriving on our shores in virtual cinemas is the most consistent fun I’ve had with his work: his 2018 film Keep an Eye Out. It’s a loony Möbius strip of a comedy set almost entirely in a police department office where a blustery detective (Benoît Poelvoorde) is taking a statement from a man (Grégoire Ludig) who found a corpse. The cop pecks out the statements on a clattering typewriter, casually smokes, and stalks the room, at least when he doesn’t step out for a family thing for a few minutes. The other officer in the room is a nice one-eyed dope. (Hence the double duty title, ha.) The film is one long digression, squeaking out to feature length, as an unspoken tension (the result of an early splash of slapstick violence imperfectly stowed away) simmers softly under flat-faced absurd roundabouts of dialogue. The pedantic detective keeps falling down rabbit holes of irrelevant questions and details as the suspect’s exceedingly boring story slowly develops. Flashbacks reenact the night in question, but even the characters in these past moments get tired of the immediate details and start having conversations bouncing off other elements of the film’s narrative. (We’re in a flashback, a man explains to a woman he won’t meet until later, which is our earlier.) Dupieux plays it straight, which makes it all the funnier as the casual silliness accumulates. As the spare plotting and simple staging backs itself into a narrative corner, the movie pulls back the curtain in a meta flourish that pulls the whole thing together in a most pleasingly nonsense way. The experience productively riffs on and extends from Dupieux’s interest in fictions and stories within stories and the exchange, the unspoken agreement, between a storyteller and an audience. And it’s just plain funny on a line by line basis, too. Take an early moment: when the suspect is asked how he could tell he saw a dead body if he’d never seen one before, he responds, he’s seen live bodies before, so he just compared.

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