Hulu’s ‘Boss Level’: ’80s Nostalgia, Good and Bad

Hulu’s Boss Level is a movie for a very specific, and very passionate, niche group of people: dudes in their ’40s who love video games and wish they were as cool as Indiana Jones.

The movie feels like a video game: that lime green, pixelated font, the quick, splicing editing style and computerized-looking visual effects, the way all the violence barely shows actual blood and gore. Video games (especially vintage ’80s ones, for our target audience) play a pivotal role in the emotional center of the film. And, of course, the plot is a video game too.

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Roy Pulver (Frank Grillo) has endless lives: he is stuck in a time loop, reliving the day he gets murdered. He’s done it 140 times by the beginning of the film. We watch as, with each not-passing day, he finds new ways to survive a little longer. Eventually, he starts to uncover the reasons behind the plot against him and he works toward revenge.

Like many classic video games, there is a damsel in distress. This time it’s Jemma Wells (Naomi Watts), Roy’s ex and the mother if his child, Joe (Rio Grillo). Jemma is a fancy scientist who is working on a top secret project while trying to covertly undermine the evil plot cooked up by her boss Colonel Clive Ventor (Mel Gibson). The contours of this plan are unclear, as is Jemma’s reasoning for why Roy is her only hope.

Some of the plot points are blurry, the violence sure isn’t. Sometimes, violence in action movies seems like it’s there just for some twisted sense of shock value and fun. That stuff pales in comparison to this. Boss Level includes violence that is unusually gratuitous and disturbing, even for an action movie, and that’s saying something.

The film is indeed a love letter to action and adventure films, including all kinds of references in which buffs can delight. It’s nostalgic for the time of Marty McFly, arcades, and back when people weren’t so liberal and annoying about racism or getting raped (…yup). This movie takes joy in offending just about anyone, though women get some special treatment. Are the creators trying to sound like gaslighting, offensive incels or is it some kind of commentary? Not sure.

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If you boil it down, though, Boss Level is about a super violent, tough guy who is the picture of classic masculinity, from the six pack to the total emotional unavailability (not a shocker that his romantic relationships have failed). Our sympathetic lead (not) spends the whole movie narrating over his own story, resorting to mansplaining rather than allowing the viewer to use their brain to follow along. And then the “satisfying” ending is that he realizes he’s been a dick the whole time and gets to do something manly to make up for it. It comes off as a little… obvious, to anyone who has ever seen toxic masculinity in action. 

Obviously, Roy is not representative of all men. But Boss Level is clearly for the “guy’s guy,” and it strikes me as pretty concerning that our dude is expected to garner adoration or sympathy.

If it’s possible to put the ridiculous gender stuff and violence aside, the mystery part is fun. Near-constant narration is certainly a choice, but beyond that the movie is well-written and clever in the way the story is told. It’s a mystery adventure that’ll keep you equal parts scandalized by violence and curious to figure out the next piece of the puzzle.

The Bottom Line

Boss Level isn’t for everybody. If you want the video game action, ’80s throwbacks, and intriguing mystery, brace yourself for the ridiculous violence, offensiveness, and manly men that unfortunately also abound.

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