Review | ‘Boy Kills World’ offers bare-knuckle yuks

(2 stars)

What happens when a movie’s unreliable narrator turns out to be the movie itself? “Boy Kills World,” a cheeky and extremely bloody action extravaganza, keeps an audience so off-balance for so long that you may throw in the towel well before the final bad guy falls.

Or you may be cheering every killing blow and bespattered head, depending on how you feel about ready-made cult movies that ladle on the ultraviolence for comic overkill. A South African production helmed by Moritz Mohr, a first-time feature director from Germany, “Boy Kills World” features an international cast and plays like a gory slapstick fusion of “The Hunger Games” and “John Wick.” We’re in a dystopian city of the near future run by the violent ruling Van Der Koy family, with crazed leader Hilda Van Der Koy (Famke Janssen) atop the pyramid and a variety of nasty sisters, brothers-in-law and cousins running the day-to-day subjugation.

Every year, the Van Der Koys hold the Culling — basically an excuse to assassinate their enemies — and one survivor of the annual bloodbath is Boy (Bill Skarsgard), who saw his family killed as a child and has been raised in secret as a lean, mean, deaf and mute fighting machine by a mysterious shaman (Yayan Ruhian). In growling He-Man voice-over, Boy vows revenge against the Van Der Koys, then admits that this inner voice has been borrowed from his favorite video game. (H. Jon Benjamin provides the vocal stylings.)

That disconnect between the hero’s perceived reality and what the movie posits as actual reality is the source of the comedy, deadpan and gross-out, in “Boy Kills World.” Since Boy regularly hallucinates the spirit of his dead little sister Mina (Quinn Copeland), we’re tipped off early that things may not be always as they seem in this live-action graphic novel. Hewing closely to the martial arts revenge playbook, Boy infiltrates the villains’ headquarters with the aid of a rowdy freedom fighter named Basho (Andrew Koji) and his hulking comrade Bennie (Isaiah Mustafa). For reasons unclear, Bennie defies Boy’s ability to read lips, resulting in the hero “hearing” a stream of gibberish that’s the single funniest thing in the movie.

Otherwise, it’s self-consciously merry mayhem all the way, with more exploding blood bags than a Red Cross reserve bank in a hurricane. The solution to every problem faced by the hero is a straightforward “get the ax; get the machete; get the Gatling gun.” And, oh, look: Here comes Michelle Dockery, out to put a stake into Lady Mary Crawley of “Downton Abbey” once and for all, as Melanie Van Der Koy, the evil media maestro of the Culling broadcast. She’s having a high old time, as are Sharlto Copley (“District 9,” “Monkey Man”) as the movie’s riff on Caesar Flickerman from “The Hunger Games,” Brett Gelman (“Stranger Things”) as a Van Der Koy with theatrical ambitions and Jessica Rothe (“Happy Death Day”) as a hired killer with a helmet visor that broadcasts her thoughts like a Jenny Holzer LED art installation.

Skarsgard — one of a seemingly endless horde of acting Skarsgards loosed upon the world by patriarch Stellan — is a gaunt, wide-eyed presence throughout, able to absorb a surreal amount of punishment while doling out just enough to win fight sequence after bludgeoning fight sequence. The busy action choreographer is Dawid Szatarski, and Ruhian as the shaman is no slouch, having served as the breakout star of the 2011 Indonesian action classic “The Raid” — a movie to see if you actually want to know what this genre can do.

By the time the final battle comes around in “Boy Kills World,” by contrast, you may be worn to a nub by the clash between the film’s jokey tone and its unabashed embrace of grievous bodily harm. Mohr keeps it all spinning but also keeps us too long at the fair, with a third-act twist that upends everything we’ve seen to that point — with an additional 20 minutes still to go. By then, the voice in your head may be saying, “No más.”

R. At area theaters. Strong bloody violence and gore throughout, language, some drug use, and sexual references. 111 minutes.

Ty Burr is the author of the movie recommendation newsletter Ty Burr’s Watch List at

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