‘Boy Kills World’ review: Awesome action, but… from Mashable

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If you buy a ticket purely to experience the action scenes of Boy Kills World, you might get your money’s worth. They’re spread out at irregular intervals, but they’re usually a treat. One of them even features Yayan Ruhian, aka Mad Dog from The Raid, one of the defining action movies of the 21st century. This buys the film — which stars IT‘s Bill Skarsgård and boasts horror legend Sam Raimi as a producer — some fleeting credibility, if nothing more. Yet there’s no getting around the fact that Boy Kills World can be a difficult watch.

The fights, drawn from the deep well of Southeast Asian action cinema, are generally shot and choreographed with expertise. However, getting to them requires sitting through an amateurish dystopian comedy-drama with flimsy political wallpapering. There’s a stark difference between what debuting director and co-writer Moritz Mohr brings to the table and the flourishes provided by stunt coordinator and second unit director Dawid Szatarski. The result is two wildly disparate approaches being smashed together with reckless abandon.

Only one of these stylistic halves really works, and without the foundation of the other in place, Boy Kills World seldom stands on its own. The brutal, tongue-in-cheek action scenes are a roller coaster, but Mohr’s beats of drama, dialogue, and even comedy repeatedly bring this ride to a jarring halt. 

‘Boy Kills World’ plays like a half-baked ‘Hunger Games.’

Famke Janssen in “Boy Kills World.”
Credit: Roadside Attractions

The film draws from an array of influences from Japanese anime and American YA fiction — specifically, The Hunger Games — leading to an attempted synthesis of East and West that never fully melds. The film’s equivalent of Katniss Everdeen is the unnamed protagonist, “Boy” (Bill Skarsgård), a revenge-driven martial artist, trained by a mysterious shaman (Ruhian) in a forest ever since he was a child.

Boy’s single-minded mission is to take down the Van Der Koys, an ostentatiously dressed media family led by sisters Hilda (Famke Janssen) and Melanie (Michelle Dockery). Their jack-booted thugs run the nearby capital city, and frequently round up civilians for a ritualistic “culling.” Such a slaughter killed Boy’s mother and sister several years ago, maiming him and leaving him unable to hear or speak. However, Boy’s acerbic inner voice narrates much of the film, commenting on each development.

This internal monologue is voiced by H. Jon Benjamin (Archer, Bob’s Burgers), whose timing and raspy, caricatured intonations create comedic expectations at every turn. The film certainly tries to follow suit, starting with drug-fueled training montages, and scenes of Boy arguing with the specter of his slain younger sister (the angel on his shoulder, played precociously by 10-year-old Quinn Copeland). However, as soon the plot kicks into high gear and Boy begins violently working his way up the Van Der Koy family ladder, the perspective widens to encompass a number of half-baked supporting villains who are far less entertaining.

Brothers-in-law Glen (Sharlto Copley) and Gideon Van Der Koy (Brett Gelman) bicker in the form of “jokes” that are usually expletive-laden insults with no real set-up. The more they’re on screen, the flimsier the movie’s world-building becomes. The social mechanics of Boy Kills World‘s premise leave plenty to be desired: The only real information we have about the fascist Van Der Koys is their white ethnicity, their Dutch last name, and their use of a militarized, mostly white police force to oppress numerous non-white extras from multiple backgrounds (though plenty of white extras can be seen as well). None of this feels accidental. These echoes of real colonial power might suggest the movie is set in an alternate South Africa where apartheid never ended. (It was also filmed on location in South Africa.) But in the end, these ideas never quite come together in any meaningful way.

Mohr shows little interest in what these political images mean — let alone what it means for Boy, a white liberator, to be the only one seen standing up to the Van Der Koys for most of the runtime. This is a distinctly “turn your brain off” kind of movie, though in slipping that switch, what’s left to pass through the lizard brain isn’t always entertaining enough.

Boy Kills World is a completely malformed comedy-drama.

Brett Gelman in “Boy Kills World.”
Credit: Roadside Attractions

The POV through which the story is told is a joke half-considered. Benjamin is an accomplished voice actor with impeccable comic timing, but he’s given little to work with. Boy, it turns out, can read lips, and his internal monologue provides wry observations for the benefit of the audience. These serve to make Boy an amusing anchor for the story. Skarsgård’s eyes were his most terrifying tool when he played Pennywise the Clown. Here, he uses them to guide the viewer through the film’s mile-a-minute jokes, including the ones that might not fully land. It’s a performance composed of reaction shots, even though the character is reacting to his own sarcasm at times.

However, apart from one small gag about a character who speaks in mumbles and thus can’t be understood, Boy Kills World isn’t really a movie where disability is meaningfully woven into its story, nor it is one where sound (or lack thereof) plays an important part in its craft. 

Boy’s lip-reading is taken for granted in practically every scene, with staging paying no attention to how he might be able to view people’s lips moving. Yet he absorbs every bit of information conveyed in dialogue, and his hearing impairment plays practically no function within the plot, which makes for uninteresting drama. There are few misunderstandings in the process, and only one memorably funny gag; it involves a cheese grater, which dovetails nicely into some vicious action too. But it has little to do with the way Boy exists within the world he kills, or communicates with the people he fights.

The disconnected storytelling of Boy Kills World kills its charms. 

Bill Skarsgård in “Boy Kills World.”
Credit: Roadside Attractions

Mundane dialogue carries too much of the film’s storytelling to keep things compelling — or even clear. What the senior members of the Van Der Koy family actually do, or how they rule with an iron fist, seems known to everyone, including Boy. But left unspoken, this isn’t meaningfully established in any way until it’s immediately relevant to the plot. For instance, a Hunger Games-esque TV broadcast where the cruelty is the point turns out to be a central fixture of this world. However, it arrives so late and suddenly that rather than strike fear through anticipation, it feels like an afterthought. 

This approach also knee-caps any plot twists. Boy Kills World‘s out-of-left-field reveals aren’t hard to understand, but they are built on character dynamics so flimsy that figuring out plot implications takes precedence over confronting personal betrayals. There’s plenty of “what” but very little “who,” “how,” or “why.”

That said, when the chips are down, and the movie switches from dialogue to action mode, like a video game returning from an overlong cut scene back to its game mechanics, Boy Kills World temporarily bursts to life. 

The action in Boy Kills World is worthwhile. 

Yayan Ruhian in “Boy Kills World.”
Credit: Roadside Attractions

Along his fight up the Van Der Koy ladder, Boy befriends an enslaved factory worker, Basho, played by Warrior‘s Andrew Koji, an actor with plenty of on-screen action chops. Together, they engage in some pretty fun and gnarly fisticuffs, including against a prison guard who inhales some mysterious drug that turns him into a rage zombie. This drug is neither established beforehand nor does it come up ever again, but in the moment, it’s delightfully silly.

The aforementioned horror-comedy-inspired scene also exemplifies the kind of gonzo action glimpsed throughout Boy Kills World. Skarsgård delivers a committed physical performance, jumping and leaping around in animalistic fashion — he’s the real Monkey Man — while Szatarski stages and captures each fight with both geographical clarity and an emphasis on impact. It’s a low bar that many American action movies fail to clear (Monkey Man included). Boy Kills World excels beyond this bare minimum, thanks to some loopy, psychedelic imagery that only seems to crop up during fights, as well as momentum-filled drone photography that makes each combat sequence feel truly alive.

Then again, these are strung together by dead dramatic weight, and a story that grows increasingly somber and self-serious as the film goes on, without any thematic or emotional resonance. Were Boy Kills World released as a mere supercut of its action scenes, it would be an incredibly worthwhile watch. Unfortunately, that just isn’t the case. The result is a movie split down the middle, torn between the stellar action choreography of a stunt coordinator who could very well make the jump to directing (à la John Wick filmmakers David Leitch and Chad Stahelski) and a filmmaker whose debut would be dead on arrival were it not for Szatarski’s skills. 

Boy Kills World opens in theaters April 26.

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