Learning in Life, as Seen in «Boss Level» (2021)

Boss Level, by Joe Carnahan, is not a good movie by a long shot. It's got bad CGI and the protagonist's – Roy's – narration runs completely counter to Show, Don't Tell. But it beautifully lays out the different ways we can learn and grow in life.

Spoilers from here on out.

Level 1: Survival

Roy is trapped in a time loop. Hunted by assassins he needs to figure out a way to not immediately die. At the beginning of the movie he has already done most of this by learning the assassin's patterns and timings by heart. He has done this mostly through a few dozen adrenaline-fueled trial-and-error attempts.

Level 2: Thought

Having attained this basic knowledge enables Roy to spend some quiet time in a bar. At first he uses this time to wallow in his misery and drink. But it also enables him to think more deeply about his situation and finally have an epiphany: He's being tracked! Time to himself enabled him to ponder and solve a more complex problem.

Level 2.5: Planning

Removing the tracker finally allows Roy to kill most of the assassins that have killed him for so long. Here he uses a bit of planning and strategy by, for example, using the tracker as bait.

Level 3: Humility

Even with planning he is unable to defeat the last assassin: Guan Yin. She is just to quick to be shot. After a couple brute force attempts with different guns Roy has to change his approach. He accepts his shortcomings and seeks outside mentorship by asking another woman to train him with a sword.

Level 3.5: Respect

When Roy finally defeats Guan Yin, he had been proud of his skills and toyed with her before, by sparing her multiple times when he had already won. This makes it all the more surprising that Roy kills her by stabbing through her side, which is much more respectful than all the ways she had defeated him before. He even carries her body with respect and dignity.

This illustrates how he has not only learned to respect not only his mentors, but also his enemies.1

Level 4: Misguided Goals

After finally getting his revenge the loops do not stop. Killing Ventor did not give Roy any closure. Roy realizes that his original goal was misguided. It was constructed out of feelings of anger and frustration, but its achievement doesn't reward Roy in the way he thought it would. As a consequence Roy falls into a depression.

Level 4.5: Self-Awareness

Roy gets out of his depression by finding in himself a new goal out of feelings of love, compassion and community. Specifically, he wants to reconnect with his son by spending a couple days and weeks with him.

Level 5: Altruism

The ending is the ultimate test for Roy. He has gone from a selfish ass that escapes assassins just to drink at a bar to a man capable of respecting even his enemies and aware of his own emotions and goals.

He has reached his ex-girlfriend who tasks him with entering the “Osiris Spindle” possibly (probably?) dying just for the world not to end. And he does so without hesitation. He's not asking for a goodbye or a couple of extra loops to make peace. He has already made peace and is unafraid of death – even this final one.


I think that the structuring of these steps is fantastic. They present different ways of learning or growing and rise in complexity and payoff. Especially Level 1 and 5 are great bookends for the story as they describe the earliest and most primitive struggle for survival and finally finding peace with death.

Bonus Level

I just read on imdb that the Hulu version has an alternate ending where Roy wakes up a final time after entering the Spindle. That doesn't take away too much from the lessons Roy's learned as he still enters the Spindle not knowing whether he'll make it out, but I find his final sacrifice or even an ambiguous ending more poetic.


[1] This is – regrettably – later undercut by him mowing down the assassins through a door with a minigun.

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