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How Hulu's 'Boss Level' super-charged the time-loop genre and curated a killer soundtrack
Coming to Hulu this Friday, Boss Level is the latest film to put its own unique stamp on the time-loop genre. Coming to Hulu this Friday, Boss Level is the latest film to put its own unique stamp on the time loop genre...
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Strange, but fitting since Joe Carnahan (Smokin' Aces, The A-Team) is back in the director's chair for the first time in six years this with action/adventure/comedy flick that takes the time-loop concept and injects it with a power-up straight out of the Mushroom Kingdom.
**SPOILER WARNING: The following contains spoilers for Boss Level.**
Also written by Carnahan, the film stars Frank Grillo (Captain America: The Winter Soldier) as Roy Pulver, a former soldier who finds himself living the same day over and over again. As if that weren't bad enough, he's constantly being hunted by a pack of overly enthusiastic assassins, and it's up to Roy to figure out why — for the sake of his ex-wife, Jemma (Naomi Watts), and young son, Jake (played by Grillo's real son, Rio). The deadly trail eventually leads the hero to Colonel Clive Ventor (Mel Gibson), the director of a secret government installation that wants to play God and rewrite humanity's great mistakes.
From the get-go, Boss Level sets itself apart from its predecessors — Groundhog Day, Happy Death Day, Palm Springs — by jumping right into the central premise.
"I think the conceit of a guy that when you meet him, he's been through this thing a 140 times — the idea of being bored by your own doom," Carnahan tells SYFY WIRE during a Zoom interview. "To me, it was a novel way to begin the film. This guy is just burned out by the whole thing. Normally, a character discovers what's going on to them and that's part of the story's vicarious rush of, 'Oh, wait a minute, I'm repeating this day.' He doesn't have that. There was something wearying and real-world about that that I quite liked and I think gives it a unique twist."
"The fun of it is you wake up and Roy has done this 186 times, so he's gotta explain it to the audience as opposed to most time-loop movies [where the character] discovers it with the audience," Grillo adds. "That's what makes it different, sardonic, and funny, and it gives us a lot of leeway."
With that said, Boss Level does acclimate the viewer to the world as Roy provides a running commentary of his purgatory-like existence, which Tom Cruise might refer to as "live, die, repeat."
"I just loved getting killed because when you listen to Joe Carnahan laugh every time I die — and I mean every time I die — I got a little suspect," Grillo says. "It was like, 'Does he really like watching me die?' But getting my head chopped off over and over again, it doesn't get old. It just doesn't get old. I have a dummy that travels with us on movies and it was just fun... we were like 8-year-old kids."
Roy's inner monologue includes a breezy rundown of all the different killers, including Selina Lo's Guan Yin, a cocky, beret-wearing swordmaster with a penchant for repeating her name after each fatality. Yin is actually behind most (if not all) of Grillo's beloved beheadings.
"There was a lot of CG for that because obviously I'm not going to actually cut his head off and I don't promote decapitation in real life," Lo says when we asked how production pulled off the visceral effect. "It was a lot of CG. We had a prop sword that was shorter and then they'd CG the end on it. We also had a dummy and a lot of... magic that went into making what you saw."
Lo, who has a background in martial arts (wushu) and weapons (straight sword and broad sword), was asked to bring a lot of herself to the role.
"When I signed on, Joe was very cool in that he said, 'Change it up, I just want you to bring what you want to bring to it. Lose the accent,' because initially, she had an Asian accent," the actress recalls. "He was like, 'Keep your own accent, bring some of your British humor to it.' And so, it was just a case of thinking about who she is and what she loves doing. Essentially, she's a very talented assassin and she loves it. She's a little unhinged, which I really enjoyed playing and bringing those elements and finding which ways would make her fun. The dry sarcasm and the wit — I think that was cool for her."
To gain the upper hand on the sword-wielding killer, Roy trains with a world-class sword-fighter known as Dai Feng (Michelle Yeoh). Think of Bill Murray's Phil Connors learning to play the piano in Groundhog Day, but with much sharper blades. The training pays off when Pulver is able to hold his own during Kill Bill-esque encounters with Guan Yin.
Inspired by '80s-era classics like Indiana Jones and Die Hard, Carnahan set out to make a movie "that just kind of hit on all cylinders."
"If Predator's on for the thirty-thousandth time and Babette's Feast is on for the third time, I'm gonna watch Predator," the filmmaker says with a laugh. "This was my valentine to Die Hard, Predator, Back to the Future, and all those great '80s action-comedies that I just love and adore. It has got that kind of quality — that bombastic, overly satirical quality that I love. It just works. It's one of those movies where everything in the movie tries to do what it achieves and that's rare."
When you decide to harken back to the golden age of action movies, you need to ramp up the stunts and set pieces to another — ahem — level. While Grillo was slightly petrified by some of the stuff he had to do for the project, he decided to do a lot of his own stunts in order to deliver a more believable experience.
"Frank does not like heights, but we had to take him up five, six stories. Watching him act, I knew deep down inside he was petrified by what was going on," Carnahan reveals. "By and large, it's a lot of him, man. That's a testament to how much he prepared and conditioned himself. I remember him telling me, 'I have to have a certain durability. I gotta look a certain way, but I have to have a certain durability, so I can do this stuff again and again and again.' And he did it."
"I trained myself for a couple of months before, like Joe said, to be durable," Grillo continues. "Because I'm not a kid, I'm old. So, I had to get myself in the kind of psychical shape ... and we got cut from 41 days to 27 days, so everything had to be consolidated with the action. I had a bit of PTSD by the end of the movie."
"He just knows how to shoot," Lo, who is inspired by "old-school Jackie Chan movies," such as Armor of God, says of Carnahan's talent for staging stylish action. "After the takes sometimes, I'd go to see behind the monitor and I'd just always be so impressed with the shots that he chose — like the aerial shots. I'm like, 'OK, I just did this' and I look back at it and I'm like, 'Wow! That looks so cool!' It's down to him, really."
But it's not all blood, guns, and explosions. Boss Level also packs in some emotional beats between Roy and his son to add a human element to the larger-than-life story. "It goes from being this rambunctiously funny action-comedy to being this quite serious story about a father and a son and then back again," Carnahan says. "You kind of whipsaw, but it does it in a way that I think is ultimately really effective."
Wrapping the entire movie into a neat quantum package is a soundtrack of licensed music that reinforces the plot and themes. For instance, the film is fond of reprising Boston's "Foreplay/Long Time," a track that holds even more significance beyond its title when you learn that the band's founder, Tom Scholz, has a background in engineering and physics.
"I love music and everybody had a playlist of songs. I always wanted the Boston song because I just love the way it started," Carnahan says. "We had a Nat King Cole song I really wanted, but couldn't get, and we had to substitute [it with something else]. And then 'Day After Day' [by Badfinger] was something that came in late because we couldn't get The Stones' 'Time Is On My Side.' It's probably my favorite soundtrack that I've ever done."
"People should know that Joe labors over the music the same way he labors over shooting the film," Grillo adds. "It's all him and so, it's fun to follow him musically. We just did another film and it's just fun to follow him musically because you're like, 'Wow, in a million years, I would never have [thought of that].' It sets a different tone. It changes the scope of the film based on what he wants his inclination for the music. It's really interesting."
"Joe would always play this really cool music while we were doing [the fight scenes] and really made it amped up," Lo says. "I love fight scenes, so I just get really in the zone. You just feel really cool doing it."
"I can't tell you anything," the actor responds with a hearty chuckle. "All I can tell you is that I recorded in my closet right behind me."
"Kevin Feige's probably watching this right now," Carnahan jokes.
"Kevin Feige's probably got a camera somewhere," Grillo concludes. "Every time I say something, I get in trouble."
Boss Level premieres on Hulu on Friday, March 5. Boss Level premieres on Hulu on Friday, March 5. Boss Level premieres on Hulu on Friday, March 5...
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