Boss Level

Roy puts an opponent to the sword

For those days when you just want something entertaining – Boss Level, a new Joe Carnhan movie that gives us the familiar Carnahan formula, action plus buffoonery, delivered with a deadpan rictus by a new arrival in geri-action heroics – Frank Grillo.

Grillo plays Roy Pulver, a guy who wakes up every day to the same scenario – a “machete wielding asshole” trying to kill him, followed by an encounter with a helicopter gunship, followed by a deadly explosion and a fall from a high window, after which he’s chased down city streets in fast cars by gun-toting bad guys determined to kill him.

That’s if they haven’t already killed him. Because Pulver has lived through this day before and will live through it again. He’s locked inside a Groundhog Day with extreme prejudice, or closer to the mark is the Tom Cruise film Edge of Tomorrow (whose subtitle: Live Die Repeat is the plot of Boss Level), learning as he goes, surviving just a bit longer than he did the day before – wisdom is power etc.

The reasons have to do with a machine that “unmakes” time, developed by the love of his life but now estranged partner, Jemma (Naomi Watts), and owned and wielded by asshole uberlord Colonel Clive Ventor (Mel Gibson). Or at least Ventor thinks he controls it – in fact things are way out of his control and unbeknown to him Jemma has inserted Roy into the machine and… 

Frank Grillo and Mel Gibson
Badass meets bad guy

You don’t need to know, though you might ask yourself the question at one point, how come all these people are after Roy in his die-rinse-repeat life if Ventor hasn’t got wind of something.

No, no, we really don’t need to go there. Instead let’s marvel at Grillo’s abs, which are fab for a guy in his 50s and look like the result of some human growth hormone dare. Grillo is in fact a hugely likeable lead, trying to be cool so hard that you start feel for him. In a brief interchange with his estranged son at a gamer convention (Grillo’s real son Rio making his screen debut), son Joe asks dad Roy if he’s a badass “like Liam Neeson”. Roy laughs at the comparison, and we laugh back, since that’s pretty much the sort of film this is, just with more hardware and a higher bodycount, the “particular set of skills” being the same.

The screenplay – Carnahan plus Chris and Eddie Borey – knows how to write to our prejudices, in other words. Like the slow turnaround intro it gives to Gibson, the sort of thing designed to raise a round of applause or chorus of boos – either way it works as theatre.

There’s a totemic aspec to Gibson too, since Carnahan is the inheritor of all those 1980s cocaine fuelled actioners of the Lethal Weapon sort, and in film after film – like Smokin’ Aces, Stretch and The A Team – has never allowed plausibility to get in the way of a bit of out and out entertainment.

There’s also a debt owed to the trashier side of Tarantino – the esoteric music choices (Badfinger, at one point) and the characters’ tendency to never shut up.

There are good films, there are important films and there are films like this – pure kinetic entertainment with lots of gadgets, lots of action and an understanding that if it’s worth doing at all, it’s worth doing fast.

Good also to know is that Carnahan’s next film, Cop Shop, is already in post-production, and teams Grillo up with Gerard Butler for what will surely be an artery-clogging knuckle-feast of badassery, and after that Carnahan is taking on a remake of Gareth Evans’s epic action spectacular The Raid.

Boss Level – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2021

The Impossible

Naomi Watts and Tom Holland in The Impossible


A movie for every day of the year – a good one



23 January



Shaanxi earthquake, 1556

On this day in 1556, the world experienced the deadliest earthquake on record. At 8.0 (possibly 7.9) on the magnitude scale (the successor to the Richter scale) it wasn’t the biggest quake the world has seen but it did kill the most people, largely because many of the people who inhabited that region in China lived in loess caves.

Loess (probably from the same English root as the word “loose”) is a wind-blown silt/clay mix held together loosely by calcium carbonate. It is very easy to excavate but is also highly susceptible both to collapsing and to disappearing under a landslide.

This is exactly what happened on the morning of 23 January 1556 when the provinces of Shaanxi, Shanxi, Henan, Hebei, Shandong and Gansu were struck by the quake which destroyed an area 840 kilometres (520 miles) wide.

The cave dwellers bore the brunt of the death toll, which killed 60% of the local population, but in the city of Huaxian, near to the epicentre, the earthquake destroyed every single building and killed hundreds of thousands of people too. In total it is estimated that 830,000 people died.




The Impossible (2012, dir: Juan Antonio Bayona)

How do you make entertainment from human misery? It’s the Schindler’s List conundrum that film-makers solve in a variety of ways.

In the case of this drama following one happy family through the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004 the film-makers have decided on a three-track strategy.

Track one is the “fraught with prior knowledge” drama. As we follow rich Ewan McGregor, his lovely doctor wife Naomi Watts and their three kids – from her worries about flying, to concerns about the kids swimming in the pool at the lovely Thai resort they’re staying at, – we know that there’s a tsunami coming (we’ve seen the trailers). We know that these concerns are nothing compared to what’s approaching. The Impossible’s track of anxiety is very similar to what Paul Greengrass did in his 9/11 drama United 93.

Track two is the full-on disaster movie, a storm of special effects and CG after the tsunami hits, devastates the resort and throws all of the family into the raging water, separating them. As the film starts to focus on Watts and her eldest child (Tom Holland) it asks the disaster movie question – who will live, who will die?

Track three is the aftermath, the sort of drama that you often see in war movies, in field hospitals, as suffering souls are tended, some dying, others just making it, confusion everywhere. Will separated loved ones be reunited? Will injuries become too much to recover from? When will some sort of order be restored?

In The Impossible, in other words, there’s no shortage of drama, and types of drama.

The film is based on a real story, that of María Belón, a Spanish doctor on holiday in Thailand with her family at the time, but is as much based on all those YouTube clips and news reports that showed that wave – not huge, just awesomely relentless – rolling in from the sea, over the beach, then onwards, through the shacks on the beach, through the hotels, out beyond the hotels onto the highways, then on, on, on, on, right out into the countryside. Clint Eastwood’s atypical Hereafter caught its chaos well. Director Juan Antonio Bayona catches it better.

It’s worth remembering that Bayona showed a different though similarly powerful command of place and mood in The Orphanage.

As for the claim that this is a racist film, because its focus is on a white family struggling to survive a devastating event that consumed so many people with brown skins, point taken, though I don’t think the wall of water discriminated either way.

And, more cynically, this is how you make entertainment from human misery.



Why Watch?


  • Naomi Watts’s Oscar-nominated performance
  • The cinematography by Oscar Faura – of The Orphanage fame
  • It was shot in the resort where it happened, gruesomely
  • A standout performance by Tom Holland, aged 11


© Steve Morrissey 2014



The Impossible – at Amazon





The Painted Veil

Naomi Watts and Ed Norton in The Painted Veil


A movie for every day of the year – a good one



19 November

Since 2001, 19 November has been World Toilet Day, as decreed by the World Toilet Organization. Considering that certain social groupings in the English-speaking world can barely bring themselves to use the word “toilet” in its most common sense, preferring “lavatory”, “loo” “bathroom” “restroom” or whatever, World Toilet Day’s 2012 slogan, “I give a shit, do you?” is your proverbial breath of fresh, if faintly scented, air. Kicking into limbo the argument that “toilet” is itself a euphemism – that way madness lies – World Toilet Day has a very simple agenda: to eliminate the taboo surrounding discussion of all things toilet, and to improve sanitation worldwide. The World Toilet Organization, and before that its spiritual parent, the Restroom Association of Singapore, was set up by Jack Sim, a social entrepreneur who decided to use the money he had made in the construction business for humanitarian purposes. Thanks to Sim’s campaigning, and his flair for showmanship and humour, Singapore building regulations were changed to promote “potty parity” (ie equal number of toilet stalls for women). US Congress has since embraced a similar proposal. Sim is a council member of the World Economic Forum, works with Bill Clinton to promote sanitation and his SaniShop franchise has worked out affordable sanitation systems for the poor. The World Toilet Day website points out that investing $1 in sanitation generates a return of $5, because it is a cornerstone of social and economic development, and that there are 2.5 billion people on the planet who don’t have a safe, clean and private toilet.

The Painted Veil (2006, dir: John Curran)

A very old fashioned sort of film that will appeal to lovers of The English Patient, The Painted Veil is a love story set against a backdrop of turbulent political times, set in China as Mao and Chiang Kai Shek are squaring off. It’s based on a Somerset Maugham story, and stars Ed Norton and Naomi Watts. The plot more or less goes like this – flighty Watts has married studious Norton on a whim and, to keep a bit of zip into her life, has been having an affair with hunky Liev Schreiber. Her doctor husband Norton finds out and, as punishment, takes the pair of them off to minister to the sick in a remote part of China where an epidemic of cholera, the disease spread by faecal contamination of drinking water, is raging. The doctor husband is clearly hoping to damn them both to an early death while dying for the noblest of causes, out of spite. What actually plays out there is a surprise, at least to the cuckolding wife, and to say any more is to enter the forbidden zone of spoilers. What I will say though is that the images on display are ravishing, cinematographically – the river, domestic interiors, Watts’s legs (three long lingering shots suggests someone really goes a bundle on legs) – and the supporting cast are top drawer, Toby Jones in particular as one of those addled imperial Brits who likes a drink, loves the opium and has gone native, setting up house with a local woman. Goodness and forgiveness are the film’s themes – is long-suffering Norton a good man or a coward hiding behind virtue? Can Watts atone for breaking the sacred bond of marriage? It is, in other words, about as uncool as a modern film can be. But only a fool believes in cool when there’s artistry – the cinematography, editing, acting, soundtrack and direction are all meticulously controlled – at this high level.

Why Watch?

  • Edward Norton as an Englishman in a straw hat
  • Compare to the original 1934 film version starring Greta Garbo and the 1957 version (called The Seventh Sin)
  • A good example of a Chinese/US co-production, a current phenomenon
  • A film intended for Oscar glory that never got marketed properly


© Steve Morrissey 2013



The Painted Veil – at Amazon