From the zany mindscape of acclaimed filmmaker Joe Carnahan – writer-director of Narc, Smokin’ Aces and The Grey – comes Boss Level, an action-drama like no other.
It’s way past time to create a new formula for a kick-ass action thriller with tons of heart, a lot of humor, and new styles of danger.
Take the world-altering twistiness of Inception; throw in the tough-talking pulpiness of Big Trouble In Little China; mix in the folding timelines of movies like Source Code and LOOPER; add a strong dash of Hong Kong-style action coolness; spice it up with mind-bending sci-fi muscle and modern videogame mayhem; chuck in a little Groundhog Day while you’re at it; then spin it all up to a razor’s edge and you get Boss Level, writer-director Joe Carnahan’s raucous, risk-taking action adventure that puts its hero through hell until he discovers why he keeps getting new chances to be the man he needs to be — one cranked-up death at a time.
The journey to Boss Level began when writer-director Joe Carnahan read a script that had elements he liked but which still needed work to bust through.
“The original script was called Continue, and it was written by two brothers, Chris and Eddie Borey,” says Carnahan. “I thought it was very inventive and smart. But what I really loved about it was this idea of a guy who’s been an absentee father and husband who, through a sci-fi plot twist, experiences a repeating moment in which — if he has enough attempts — he can right the wrongs he’s done and redeem himself in the eyes of the people he loves.”
Eddie and Chris Borey were featured on the Black List in 2007. Eddie Borey’s award winning play Christmas In Hanoi was produced and showcased by the East-West Players in Los Angeles. Eddie is a Harvard Grad who majored in creative writing and Chinese history/culture, and Chris borey is a University of Michigan and UCLA Film/Tv graduate. They have continued to have written a wide array of genres: historical drama, psychological horror, and science fiction. They are currently working on a psychological thriller set in America’s least known town.
“I started rewriting it, and I added what I thought was a crucial emotional core,” says Carnahan. “Because without that, a movie like this would just seem like a gimmick. You’d think, ok, the guy is resurrected every day, but to what end? The movie needed higher emotional stakes.”
Carnahan’s new version upped the ante.
Roy Pulver (Frank Grillo), a former Delta Force captain, is mysterious stuck in a time loop, which he discovers has some connection to his ex-wife Dr. Jemma Wells (Naomi Watts), a brilliant scientist employed by Col. Clive Ventor (Mel Gibson). When Roy becomes an unwitting part of Ventor’s plan to use a powerful machine called the Osiris Spindle, he’s attacked day after day by an array of assassins sent out by Ventor’s head of security Brett Dynow (Will Sasso) — who all keep coming after Roy on the same day, in the same way, because every time Roy gets killed he immediately wakes up as he did last time. But with each “Attempted Kill,” Roy gathers more clues to the terrifying truth. On his way to stop it all, he discovers a bridge that could help him bond with his 11-year-old son, Joe (Rio Grillo), who would rather play competitive first-person-fighter videogames than go to school.
The phrase “Boss Level,” explains Carnahan, “is a phrase that anyone who plays videogames will understand instantly — it’s the ultimate boss, the highest and toughest level of difficulty in a fighting game. Here, that becomes this idea of Roy Pulver being killed and then reincarnated as he’s trying to get to Col. Ventor. The ‘boss level’ is Ventor; he’s the ultimate challenge after all the assassins have been killed. I also just thought it’s a cool combination of words. It has a punchiness to it.”
Boss Level has a lot of punch to it, too — as well as wild twists and turns, grenade-launchers, assault weapons being fired from hovering helicopters, electrocutions, beheadings, death-by-coffee-pot-to-the-face, and other forms of mayhem that give the MPAA ratings board instant ulcers. As Ventor’s assassins and mercenaries pulverize Roy Pulver six ways to Sunday, the over-the-top kills, hand-to-hand combat, and car chases become artfully baroque. Which, Grillo says, is part of the film’s unique charm.
“I think what Boss Level does for the action genre is, it turns it all upside-down,” says Grillo. “It’s not a standard thriller, and it’s not a straightforward, linear action movie. It’s an action movie that’s got a lot of laughs, a lot of dark humor, and lots of gravitas because of Roy’s connection to his ex-wife and son. We tried to create something new in the genre: A stew containing all these different elements.”
Few filmmakers today have command of the masculine movie genre like Joe Carnahan
Few filmmakers today have command of the masculine movie genre like Joe Carnahan.
The Fairfield, California native’s rise famously began when, in the mid-’90s, he knew he needed to get into the director’s chair to see the scripts he cared about hit the screen. Blood, Guts, Bullets and Octane (1995) was the first of those, but Carnahan’s Narc (2002) truly established him as a filmmaking force to be reckoned with. Smokin’ Aces (2006) and The A-Team (2010) followed. Then, the Liam Neeson-led ensemble action-drama The Grey (2011), a visceral, gutsy meditation about the survival instinct and how the contents of a life can breed ferocity and courage, announced Carnahan’s distinctive vision: Two-parts Peckinpah to one-part Hemingway, with a cinematic DNA that links Carnahan to artists such as John Huston, Akira Kurosawa, James Ellroy, John Sturges, and Michael Mann, though he takes his own path.
Now — after directing and exec producing The Blacklist and State of Affairs for TV, producing and cowriting the boundary-breaking El Chicano, and producing (through his and Frank Grillo’s Warparty Pictures) Netflix’s acclaimed original feature Wheelman, in which Grillo starred as a getaway driver having a tough night — Carnahan is back behind the camera with the high-energy Boss Level.
“My wife was the one who threw down the gauntlet with me, actually,” Carnahan says. “She said to me, ‘I don’t really like your comedies. I like your dramas.’ And so I thought, ‘Ok, then I’ll make a movie for you that has both.’ Tonally, Boss Level is very tricky to pull off; it’s like you’re tip-toeing on a tightrope and you have to be very, very aware of what’s too much, and what’s too little. It’s interesting, but it’s certainly worth the stretch, because pulling it off resulted in something special. The juice is definitely worth the squeeze.”
Says Gibson, “Boss Level takes action to another level. The main character wakes up every morning with an assassin trying to stick him in the face with a knife. But it contains intrinsic lessons about being able to re-do things and correct the mistakes that you make. If you could go back and re-do parts of your life, what would you do? And it’s also about thinking ahead. If you had your chance to go back and do it again or make up for past transgressions or things you’ve done, what would you do? Hopefully, it’ll make people think about that a little bit, and in a fun way.”
“You want to continue to push yourself with your work, and hopefully surpass what you’ve done previously,” says Carnahan. “I think wanting to do Boss Level has a lot to do with that. I love to laugh, I love action movies, and I love dramas.”
“I think I’ve been very lucky in this genre of filmmaking, being able to make action dramas or masculine stories that are also thoughtful,” says Carnahan. “This genre appeals to my sensibilities — they’re the things I like to see. I’d rather watch a rerun of Predator than a Merchant-Ivory film. Between watching Sense and Sensibility or Die Hard for the 800th time, I’m probably going to watch Die Hard.”
That appreciation for the rough magic of smart, smash-mouth cinema is evident in many ways, including the rogues’ gallery of assassins who try to kill Roy Pulver from the instant he opens his eyes, including the machete-wielding wake-up call Roy nicknames “Mr. Good Morning”; the sword-fighting, head-chopping “angel-faced –hole” Guan-Yin (Selina Lo); the guy with a little love for explosives who Roy dubs “Kaboom”; the firepower-fueled femme fatales Roy calls “Pam and Esmerelda”; and a Roy Pulver lookalike he calls “Roy # 2.” They all answer to Brett Dynow, Col. Ventor’s head of security/chief enforcer. As played by Will Sasso, Brett is a bald, barbaric dynamo with an appreciation for all the ways one can dispatch their enemy.
“The first thing you’re obliged to do in filmmaking or storytelling is: you must entertain,” says Gibson. “That’s a prerequisite. That in and of itself is a valid reason to make something. If you can add in something else of meaning, that’s great. And I think there are good lessons to be learned in this movie.”
Says Grillo, “I’d love for the audience to take away the kind of feeling that I did when I saw movies like Die Hard or Lethal Weapon. I remember the feeling I had when I first saw those — I thought, ‘I have never seen movies like this!’ And I think that Boss Level is a throwback to those great ’80s action thrillers.”
Time Waits For No Man. But Wait Till Time Meets Frank Grillo
Born in New York City, where he was a wrestler in high school and at New York University, Frank Grillo escaped the bear-trap of Wall Street to become a true American cinema original. With a wry grin, a game-for-anything attitude, and the kind of unruffled, reliable toughness that would make him your 3 a.m. call to help you dig your car out of a ditch, Grillo built a solid body of work during a decade-and-a-half of acting in TV dramas, including “Prison Break,” “Blind Justice,” and “Kingdom,” and in films including Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report, Gavin O’Connor’s Pride and Glory and Warrior, David Ayer’s End of Watch, and Kathryn Bigelow’s Best Picture Oscarã nominee Zero Dark Thirty.
Grillo first teamed with Joe Carnahan for 2011’s lauded action drama The Grey before becoming part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe as Brock Rumlow, aka “Crossbones,” in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Captain America: Civil War, and Avengers: Endgame, which shattered worldwide box-office records. Grillo starred in Wheelman, the first production of his and Carnahan’s company, Warparty, before reuniting with Carnahan for Boss Level, a project they had been nurturing for years.
“I wrote this script very specifically for Frank, which is one of the reasons why he totally nails it — I tailored these scenes for Frank,” says Carnahan. “It’s one of the few times I’ve created a character specifically for an actor. He and I go back on this project now almost eight years, trying to get this thing made. And we’ve gotten closer as friends and then started our company, Warparty, together. So I already knew Frank really well when I wrote it, and I know him even better now.”
“You get a great sense of Frank in the character of Roy Pulver,” adds Carnahan. “I think that’s why his performance is so fantastic. Roy absolutely is Frank. This is his bespoke suit. Frank’s a big softie who’s also a very tough guy and very intellectually sharp. So he’s able to play Roy with a mixture of befuddledness and a little ineptitude, and yet effortlessly have that heroism and a toughness. That’s a hard combination mixture to strike, and Frank does it beautifully.”
Says Grillo, “Finding depth in the character of Roy Pulver wasn’t hard, because it was in the script: Boss Level is equal parts action, comedy, black comedy, and drama. The depth was on the page. Roy is a guy who was at a point in his life where he’s losing a lot. After a military career, he’s now rootless. As a result, he’s lost his wife and is estranged from his son, who doesn’t even know that Roy is his father. And then, through extraordinary circumstances, Roy comes to realize how damaged he’s become. He wants to fix himself. He wants to right the wrongs in his life. And through those crazy circumstances, he gets a chance to do just that.”
Grillo sums up the appeal of letting loose in Boss Level: “I’m a father of three, I live a very serious life, and I take care of my family. So it’s fun to play the kind of guy who says ‘Screw you!’ to the world, who drinks just because he likes to drink, who messes around with women, and who fights the fight. With a role like Roy Pulver, you get to be really out there. It’s the most fun I’ve had on a movie.”
Says Gibson, “The last time I worked with Frank was on a picture called Edge of Darkness in 2010. I think I shot him full of holes in the last act of that movie. Now, in this film, we get to shoot each other full of holes a bunch of times. Frank has got tremendous energy and presence, and he’s so funny.”
Mel Gibson – the evil but loquacious and charming Col. Ventor
To play the evil but loquacious and charming Col. Ventor in Boss Level — whose organization is building the Osiris Spindle to unmake time and space while possibly endangering the world — Carnahan, Grillo, and their team needed a bigger-than-life figure whose filmography would not only include some of the greatest action films ever made, but also serious dramas, historical epics, some dapper turns at comedy, performances with perhaps just a hint of madness … and a bit of Shakespeare in there wouldn’t hurt either. Oscarã winner and action legend MEL GIBSON had all that and more.
For Gibson, though, the reasons to sign up for Boss Level were pretty simple.
“Joe and Frank asked me to come aboard and said, ‘We might have some fun.’ I thought that was a good enough reason to slip on a black suit and try not to be too Machiavellian,” says Gibson with a grin. “The key to Ventor is, he tells a lot of stories and loves the sound of his own voice. Which is tough for me — it’s kind of hard for me to take myself seriously. I think most people who are sociopaths who want to rule the world are usually pretty self-involved. So that’s part of what makes Ventor an interesting character to portray and try to figure out. He has those layers.”
Says Carnahan, “What Mel brings to any film is really himself — he brings Mel Gibson. You look at that face and realize you’re looking at 40 years of cinema, and an incredible filmmaker as well. He’s at the top of the food chain.”
“Beyond the malevolent glee we see in this character, I wanted Ventor to actually be a bit sympathetic,” Gibson says. “I wanted people to understand him. I think the key to a characterization like this is my being able to understand the guy, and then hopefully audiences will understand who he is as well, why he’s doing what he’s doing, and why he is how he is. For me, I can generally access that through humor. That helps me figure out what makes this guy tick.” The result, Gibson jokes, is that “Joe and Frank were thinking that Ventor is the bad guy — but you know, for me, I thought Ventor was actually the good guy, and Frank and Joe just didn’t know it!”
Says Carnahan, “I think what’s so brilliant about Mel Gibson as an actor is, Mel is not insincere at all. He’s not going to play a villain as just purely evil as malevolent. That may be the character’s intention, ultimately, but with Mel, you see the humanity as well. He’s a humanist. So you get a character who is scary and yet compelling, and you kind of understand the reasoning behind what he’s doing. That’s a skill that I think very few actors are capable of, and Mel is certainly one of them.”
“There’s a speech in the film that Ventor makes about a python in a Banyan tree that was written late in the game, and it was written specifically for Mel,” says Carnahan. “That speech was very much written for Mel’s sensibilities. It was incredible for me is to watch Mel’s distillation of those words.”
Of course, Ventor isn’t just all talk. For the more physical part of the role, the director of Braveheart, The Passion of the Christ, Apocalypto, and Hacksaw Ridge, and star of the Lethal Weapon franchise as well as Braveheart, The Road Warrior, The Year of Living Dangerously, Bird on a Wire, Conspiracy Theory, The Patriot, and We Were Soldiers, needed to access his muscle memory, too.
Says Gibson, “Doing action stuff didn’t used to be challenging at all. Now it’s really challenging, because I’m a little rusty. With creaky joints, it’s not like it used to be! I used to be able to jump over things and now, it’s very important to get a really good stunt double to make you look good!”