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2016 seems to be a fashionable year for British indie movies taking videogames as a theme. Earlier this year, The Call Up did so explicitly by throwing its young cast into a VR shooter that was, of course, Not As It Seems. Now we have Level Up, a thriller written & directed by Adam Randall that, although recycling several familiar ideas and themes, stands firm as a solid piece of entertainment.
Matt (Josh Bowman) is a twentysomething beard-wielder who does little more than mess around, play his favourite FPS game (on PS4 – kaching!), and unintentionally piss off his girlfriend Anna (Leila Mimmack). The film starts off a little slowly in order to make all of this perfectly clear; but the pace increases rapidly and refuses to slow down until the end once a bunch of thugs (disguised in what appear to be hand-knitted rainbow balaclavas) storm into his flat and knock him out. Matt awakens to find himself wearing a bolted-on vest containing a package he is ordered to deliver. Anna, he is told, has been kidnapped; if he fails to deliver the package, or attempts to seek help from anybody, she will be killed.
He’s given orders (which change in reaction to various events) via a phone he’s given. Usually this will be by text message, but on a few occasions he gets a phone call from one of the kidnappers who, hilariously, sounds exactly like (but presumably isn’t) MasterChef’s Gregg Wallace. This does serve to defuse the tension somewhat. Yet we can’t be entirely sure that this was unintentional. Though by and large a straight-laced (and dark) thriller, Level Up has moments of fully intentional and extremely dark humour. One memorable scene has Matt desperately fumbling around trying to make a getaway from imminent danger by inexpertly riding a moped.
You might think that sprinkling humour into a film that would probably describe itself as “dark and gritty” would be detrimental to the experience – but you’d be wrong. It serves only to make the story more relatable and realistic. In real life, after all, humour can be found in the most dire and horrific of situations, something that Randall clearly recognises. Similarly, a combination of Randall’s writing and Bowman’s performance makes Matt come across as a real human being rudely thrown into a dangerous and utterly surreal situation.
Indeed, ‘surreal’ is one of the watchwords for the movie. While not consistently odd, there are moments and entire sequences where Matt’s inability to grasp the turn his life has suddenly taken is shared wholeheartedly with the audience. The epitome of this is surely where Matt is directed to an improbably hidden and decorated karaoke bar, where after trying to communicate with an odd receptionist he ends up being forced to sing against his will. As if karaoke wasn’t a disturbing enough proposition for most people.
The promotional material is misleading, in that the photography and art strongly imply an action adventure full of gun battles. While there are guns, they’re very rarely used, and far from the focus of the action. There is violence, though. Boy, is there violence. There’s little blood and gore, but each punch, kick, and hit landed with a crude makeshift weapon looks and feels so real it had us wincing more than once. So brutally realistic is the violence, Level Up puts many a Hollywood blockbuster to shame in this regard.
While you’ll see at least some of the twists coming, we have no desire to spoil the road the story takes here. The overarching plot is pretty simple though. It does the job perfectly well but, in all honesty, the story doesn’t have anything you won’t have seen before. That’s not to say that this is a bad movie – far from it. Level Up is a film that squeezes its quality through individual pieces of the puzzle, each scene offering a new reason to keep you watching. It’s funny when it’s supposed to be, dripping with menacing tension where it should, and compelling where it demands you don’t allow your attention to stray for a second.
Although the title immediately hints at the game-related twist, we’re still not sure why it’s called Level Up mind you.
★ ★ ★ ★ ☆