‘Boy Kills World’ Review: Frenetic Sci-Fi Fight Film Falls Frustratingly Flat

Pauline Kael famously wrote that George Lucas’ “Star Wars” was “like getting a box of Cracker Jack which is all prizes.” I can only imagine how she would have described a film like Moritz Mohr’s debut feature “Boy Kills World.” Like Lucas’ trailblazer, it too is a pastiche of many artistic influences, shoved together inside a single movie, like a crash course in everything the director seems to love. But if “Star Wars” seemed like a sensory overload, back in 1977 “Boy Kills World” would have literally broken brains. It’s not a Cracker Jack box of full of prizes, it’s a
box of prizes full of speed and ‘shrooms.

There are those to whom this will sound like the ultimate compliment, and those people will probably love “Boy Kills World.” There’s something genuinely, honestly adolescent about its frantic pacing and half-sensical plotting, like it was written and directed by a group of junior high schoolers who just wolfed down their first Pixy Stix. It’s never happy to simply work with what it already has. It’s always adding more to the chaos pile — and when the pile tips over, it’s not a problem, apparently. It’s just an excuse to make another pile.

“Boy Kills World” stars Bill Skarsgård (“John Wick: Chapter 4”) as Boy, who grew up in a dystopian future ruled by Hilda Van Der Koy (Famke Janssen). Every year, there’s a national holiday called “The Culling” in which she rounds up all her enemies and publicly executes them. Boy’s mother and sister were victims of The Culling, but Boy — who was tortured, and now cannot speak or hear — was rescued by a mysterious hermit called Shaman (Yayan Ruhian, “The Raid 2”), and violently trained in martial arts to take revenge on the Van Der Koy dynasty.

One of the conceits of “Boy Kills World” is that Boy, who can no longer remember what his own voice sounds like, has an inner monologue inspired by the announcer in his favorite arcade fighting game. That voice is provided by H. Jon Benjamin, the modern heir apparent to the great Lorenzo Music, who magically infuses all his voice-over performances with complex comic notes while never feeling overplayed. If anything, his work is suspiciously laid back, yet always
fully engaged. Benjamin is, it must be said, an international treasure.

Then again, Benjamin’s role often seems extraneous. Skarsgård is a talented enough performer that he could convey Boy’s whole journey through expression and physicality, and Benjamin’s voice-over, though often amusing, doesn’t always add much to the story except another layer of busyness (One also can’t help but wonder why the filmmakers couldn’t hire a deaf actor to play their deaf protagonist, but I guess we’ll have to keep wondering).

Back to the story: Boy grows up into a fully-grown killing machine and decides that this is the year he’s going to kill Hilda and the rest of her evil family. There’s Melanie (Michelle Dockery), who runs the propaganda machine that turned the “Culling” into a televised event, complete with product placement. Her husband, Glen (Sharlto Copley) hosts the events and does the public speaking, which he sometimes lets devolve into mass murder. Gideon (Brett Gelman) does the thankless jobs, but he fancies himself an artist so they toss him a bone and
let him write speeches too.

And also there’s June27 (Jessica Rothe), an unstoppable Van Der Koy enforcer who wears a motorcycle helmet with a digital readout on the visor that gives a running commentary on her conversations — and makes it hard to tell if the actor is doing any of her own choreography. But at least that choreography is elaborate and intense. The editing may sometimes be too frenetic to get a great look at it, but whenever the camera lingers long enough, it’s clear that the fights in
“Boy Kills World” are something special.

Boy fights his way through the Van Der Koy dynasty, gets swept up in a revolutionary movement, uncovers mysteries about his past and fights just about every human being he meets to the death. “Boy Kills World” is always barreling forward, never stopping anywhere long enough to get a good look at anything or, god forbid, ponder why it’s in the film. Revelations undermine other revelations, and the ending almost raises complex moral questions before it beats those moral questions to death and eats another bowl of sugary cereal.

“Boy Kills World” is a hodgepodge of exuberant stylistic flourishes and pop culture references, and while it’s often briefly entertaining, it’s never consistently anything except manic. And yet, I can’t help but wonder if the film is really the problem here. It’s entirely possible that in a world where “Skibidi Toilet” is a major artistic force — not a complaint, just an observation — media tastes have transformed enough that “Boy Kills World” might have a practically universal appeal to younger audiences who are more on its wavelength.

Then again, hyperactive filmmaking wasn’t invented in the 21st century. You can find impossibly fast-paced movies way back in the silent era, like Dziga Vertov’s “Man With a Movie Camera,” and filmmakers pushing the boundaries of pacing and plotting and pop culture throughout the history of the medium. Sometimes the films are great — “Breathless,” “Star Wars,” “Wild Zero,” etc. — but those films usually have something beneath them that resonates. A rationale behind the ravings. Even “Skibidi Toilet” eventually revealed itself to be a salient treatise on the ongoing war between old media and new media.

What holds “Boy Kills World” back, for all its imagination and all its enthusiasm, is the frustrating yet inescapable sense that, more than anything, it’s a style exercise. An understandably eager attempt to put everything nifty into one film, at one time, because life is short and who knows how many other chances we’ll get? It must have been satisfying to get all that love for movies, television, video games, science fiction, comic books and anime out of the filmmakers’ systems, but now that it’s out, the real test is what can actually be done with it. Will the next outing for Mohr take all this energy and use it to make a film that doesn’t just look “awesome” but actually inspires awe?

“Boy Kills World” hits theaters April 26.

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