(Image courtesy of FilmBuff and Kaila Hier)


As a clever and unusual experiment, “Level Up” maintains a sobering edge of straight-faced menace.  Set to the electronica of the British musical duo Plaid, any sense of humor is present purely as a WTF moment of reminder of this scenario’s gonzo craziness.  Targeting the metaphor of video game violence, once the clues bear fruit and darker confrontations ensue, “Level Up” earns your twisted interest and delivers on its high-concept potential with an adequate amount of thrill.  The film is getting a one-off screening at Facets Cinematheque in Chicago on August 26 before landing on VOD platforms on September 26.

Josh Bowman of TV’s “Revenge” is Matt, a 28-year-old unemployed Londoner with tech career aspiration.  He is a lazy disappoint to his more proper and gainfully employed girlfriend Anna (Leila Mimmick of “High-Rise”).  Matt’s chief distraction is burning his nights and free time logging onto an online first-person shooter video game.  True to the apathy present in many gamers, he engages more in that activity than in real relationships that offer little or more difficult reward.

Inexplicably one morning, three men in knit ski masks barge open the door and assault Matt.  They tell him that they have kidnapped Anna and that he must follow all of their instructions to get her back.  The assailants equip him with a small, combination-protected box affixed to a locked Kevlar vest and a smartphone that feeds him texts and phone calls from the unseen perpetrators.  His first task is to deliver a package to a man named Dmitri (Neil Maskell of “Kill List”) only to have a crazed businessman (“Sherlock Holmes” franchise supporting actor William Houston) pursue the very same objective.

From there, “Level Up” lays out an obstacle course of pitfalls and mysteries that get stranger and stranger the deeper Matt tumbles down the London underworld.  Flustered with paranoia, Matt feels like he is being watched.  He begins to suspect every device and every moment of eye contact in public places.  He also thinks that more victims, forced by their own threatening demands, may be involved than just him.  When his next task dials up the order of committing murder, the clench required by Matt to hold his sugar-honey-iced-tea together becomes maddeningly overwhelming.

The darting camera in “Level Up” never leaves Josh Bowman.  He shoulders Matt’s mounting fear with moments that can break his confidence, challenge his masculinity, or cement his resolve.  Bowman does so in an unembellished way that never reaches full frazzle.  Twisting the proverbial knife a few more degrees to have his character crack more might have helped sell the tension and high drama just a bit more.  There is a noticeable lag in the middle act that should have pushed the accelerator from its strong start.  There was room for more deep end to the rabbit hole.  

Director and co-writer Adam Randall, making his feature length debut, is clearly taking aim at the allegories of violent voyeurism found in a generation of Millennials living life through video screens in some shape or form.  Randall attempts to spin those ballsy truths with a cat-and-mouse game akin to David Fincher’s “The Game” in the mindf--k genre department.  Few films can ever hope to spin heads and match the punching power of Fincher’s classic, but “Level Up” holds up with a kinetic and lean style that tantalizes a grander pursuit with more formidable puppeteers.

LESSON #1: LEARN TO BLOCK AN INCOMING BLOW-- Matt, the word of the day is “parry.”  At least three times by my count, Matt stands and watches a suspicious figure walk straight at him from a distance and hit him in the face.  Dude, you saw them coming.  Your girlfriend is kidnapped.  They are not coming to shake your hand.  Would it kill you to dodge, duck, dip, dive, or dodge or punch first?

LESSON #2: GAMES IMITATING LIFE AND VICE VERSA-- “Level Up” speaks to the notion of the contemporary social commentary surrounding the hyper-realistic violence found in video games.  How much does those repeated experiences desensitize a person’s morals or conscience?  At what point does the response to violence become equal or greater violence?  The twist here is that the violence is brought to Matt forcing him to answer and respond, leading right into Lesson #3.

LESSON #3: WHAT KIND OF PERSON ARE YOU WHEN THREATENED?-- This situation is beyond just a test for Matt.  He must act on the orders given to him.  Would it end up being easier to do as you are told to get the ordeal over with or does pushing back improve your chances of success or survival?  When do you cave to demands and when do you throw up the middle finger and call out bluffs?