Gamer culture is a funny thing. Virtual soldiers of fortune sit comfortably on their plushy, safely-indoor couches, while screaming obscenities and egotistical insults into a headset microphone. It takes a movie like Level Up to put some of these arm-chair warriors in their respective places, useful with only a Cheeto-dusted controller in their hands. Yet, as far as “fantasy becomes reality” movies are concerned, Adam Randall’s kidnapping take is a bit more boiled-down than other more frantic, high-stakes efforts. Think Call Of Duty meets Grand Theft Auto, except Randall’s dangerous trajectory lacks any gameplay meat on its proverbial bones. Bad might turn to worse, but never in an adrenaline-pumping, action-ready kind of way. Not a glitchy mess, but more like a beta test?
Josh Bowman stars as the slacker-happy Matt, who spends most of his days playing video games and getting piss drunk. His girlfriend Anna (Leila Mimmack) wishes her unmotivated boyfriend would leave the couch one day, but we must be careful what we wish for. On this particular day, Matt finds masked men in his apartment who rig a device to his body. If he tries to remove it, they will do unspeakable things to Anna. Matt’s mission is simple – deliver the attached package based on instructions given via a mobile phone, and everyone walks away happy. Of course, it’s never THAT easy, but at least Matt finally might have found some purpose to follow.
Along the way, Matt gets caught up in an avalanche of angry gangsters, horny bombshells and plenty of bruises. The game is constantly afoot, but sometimes it seems that Randall is just keeping Matt running forward for the hell of it. People love non-stop action, and there’s no shame in something like Running Scared that keeps Paul Walker in a constantly-shifting chase of sorts – yet that’s not Level Up. Matt’s abuse becomes predictable, and the vagueness in his predicament is no coincidence. A product of an idea not being allowed to hatch fully, hung up on its inherent “coolness” factor.
That’s not to say Mr. Bowman can’t command a leading performance, it’s just a more trivial arc. Matt’s early booze-soaked banter leads into a possible death sentence with dire consequences – so of course he learns what he truly cares about in life. Action sequences are sometimes met with intrigue, while other attacks create a survival scenario where down-and-out Matt has zero hesitations about retaliating viciously. Could you stab a man with broken wood given no henchman training? Bowman’s best chemistry comes during his run-in with Christina Wolfe’s Kya and her unappreciated advances (talk about strength), where they’re put at odds only to escape a few minutes later – the rest is pretty typical smoke-and-mirrors stuff by Matt’s knit-capped overseers.
As the final shot pans out on a multiplying collection of monitors suggesting that Matt’s case is far from the only form of this game, Level Up reminds of many films that have played the “big brother” angle with a bit more vigor and spunk. Only a few days ago, I found the same kind of ending from Greg Mclean’s superior The Belko Experiment during its TIFF premiere. Any moral conundrums are posed without much power, while any fights are surprisingly matched given that Matt seems to be a regular couch potato. Then you throw in some of the bigger questions that aren’t handled with enough clarity and vitality, and you’ve got a pretty neat idea that meanders around genre playgrounds where more energetic children have previously explored.
Level Up never achieves the fury Adam Randall teases, nor does his lead character Matt become the lab rat we hope. Everything is a bit too expected here, as no interaction is ever what it seems. There’s some fun to be had as this reality-show-gone-mad dashes about London’s streets, but never with enough character to be something unfamiliar. It’s not exactly “Game Over” material, just the frustrating type of campaign gameplay that concludes in a matter of hours – unfulfilling in richness, and a bit underdeveloped. Easy, breezy, yet just a bit too novice.
Level Up is one of those great ideas that makes a pretty OK movie at best, even if it isn't "Game Over" status.