Level Up is a movie that threatens to drown itself in borrowed ideas. Protagonist's loved one is kidnapped, so he's forced to follow instructions from an unseen nasty man; delivery of a mysterious package; London drug dealers in a grotty council estate flat; and other bits and pieces, some of which sit in spoiler territory. Here's the thing though: Level Up is actually quite a decent film.
A relatively low budget British production, writer/director Adam Randall works well with what he has. The basic idea is this: lazy twenty something loser Matt (Josh Bowman) does very little with his life except play his favourite (generic and suspiciously outdated) FPS game, frustrate the hell out of his girlfriend Anna (Leila Mimmack), and mess around with his best friend Joel (a severely underused Doc Brown). This all goes out of the proverbial window when, moments after a fight with Anna that sees her storm out of the flat, Matt finds himself under attack from a group of men wearing multicoloured balaclavas that appear to have been knitted by somebody's nan.
Regaining consciousness after being knocked out, Matt finds himself with a headache and a screwed-on vest containing some sort of package hidden behind a combination lock. Receiving instructions by phone, he's told that Anna has been kidnapped; if he fails to follow instructions to deliver the package, or if he tries to tell anybody what's happening to him, Anna will die.
It's important to stress that one of the most important elements that makes the film work is Matt's character. A combination of Randall's writing and Bowman's performance makes him come across as a real human being you might pass in the street from beginning to end. There are a million movies and games with the 'ordinary person thrown into an extraordinary situation' scenario, but a significant flaw most of them share is that the transformation from supposedly relatable everyman to seemingly unstoppable superman is almost instantaneous. Matt, however, is consistently frustrated by – and terrified of – the insane path his life is now hurtling down.
Some sections of the film are downright surreal, temporarily allowing the viewer to share in Matt's fragile grip on the reality of his situation. There's grim humour in patches too because, let's face it, there's humour to be found in even the darkest times of our life – even though we probably don't see it at the time. The best example of the surreal and the humorous coming together is probably the section where Matt is directed to a Karaoke bar hidden down a grimy side alley, which culminates in his being forced to sing for reasons that don't become apparent until later.
Once things get going, they carry on at a decent pace until the end. And, although there are moments of laughter, there's violence as well. Extremely well directed violence that lets you almost feel every punch, kick, and merciless blow with a makeshift weapon. I have no shame in saying that I winced more than once during these scenes, so brutal and realistic were the blows. Especially as Matt, unwilling hero that he is, tends to be on the receiving end.
Although engaging from moment to moment, it has to be said that the overall plot of Level Up is somewhat uninspired and derivative. The plot twists are split about 50/50 between “Really? Crikey.” and “Saw that coming bloody miles off”. The story may not do anything new or exciting, and the ending may not tie things up quite as tightly as it should, but the execution is more than good enough to hold your attention for the duration.
Welcome, Matt. 4/5
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