Peter Berg’s jittery espionage thriller doesn’t just mark his fourth partnership with Mark Wahlberg, but a pointed shift in direction too. While the duo’s previous outings – Patriots Day, Lone Survivor and Deepwater Horizon – have all been based on real-life events (admittedly with a few liberal doses of artistic license along the way), Mile 22 is a work of out-and-out fiction from the pen of screenwriter and novelist Lea Carpenter.
The opening set-piece throws us into American picket-fence suburbia, and a raid by Overwatch, a shady black ops team lead by Wahlberg’s James Silva, on a Russian safe house filled with extremists. Sixteen months (and several body bags) later, Silva’s unit are now stationed in Indocarr City, a South-East Asian metropolis where police officer Li Noor (Iko Uwais) surrenders to custody at the US embassy, claiming to know the scattered whereabouts of a chemical weapon. With Indonesian intelligence services in deadly pursuit, it’s down to Silva and Overwatch to run the eponymous 22-mile gauntlet through the city and escort Noor to safe asylum in America.
While this an entirely fictive premise, it’s very much grounded in real-life optics: febrile American/Russian relations; terrorist cells; viruses, hacking and other cyber-nefarity; unscrupulous goings-on by shadowy government units. But where, say, the Bourne films intelligently tapped into such zeitgeisty neuroses to deliver old-fashioned thrills, Mile 22 descends into a drearily gratuitous barrage of explosions, machine-gun fire, aerial footage and terse radio exchanges.
Delivering a serviceable thriller should all be a walk in the park for Berg, who operates with all his usual trademarks: tremorous camerawork, rapid-fire dialogue, intimate close-ups. There’s the odd resonantly human moment amid the carnage, like when Lauren Cohan’s agent pulls the wedding ring from a fallen comrade’s bloodied hand. And there’s something interesting here too about the disconnect between ground-level brutality and governmental bureaucracy: as agents perish in firefights on the street, heart monitors flatline in front of desk drones miles away.
Sadly, it’s all hobbled by a lack of focus, which results in it being near-impossible to invest in anything or anyone on-screen. Silva’s team are relegated to disposable bullet fodder; as amoral apparatchik Bishop, John Malkovich brings little to the story except a vaguely diabolical hairpiece. The martials arts that Uwais dazzled us with in The Raid movies are lost in fight scenes edited to near unintelligibility. Actually, this is a charge to lay against the wider film: scenes are breakneck rather than fast-paced, and much-needed exposition reduced to a series of irritating, fuck-strewn arguments. But curiously, the film’s biggest weakness is Wahlberg himself.
While it might be a little unfair to hold Mile 22 against previous entries in the Berg and ’Berg canon, it’s worth establishing why all those based-on-true-life predecessors worked so well. Berg has been able to chronicle such recent traumas in American history while (largely) dodging accusations of exploitation because he’s always had the perfect lead in the form of Wahlberg, who has always done the relatable thing so well. Whether they’re oil-rig workers, beat coppers or military servicemen, his blue-collar everymen form the beating hearts of these stories.
Mile 22’s Silva, by contrast, is an almost preternaturally unhinged individual: hot-tempered, aggressive and incapable of empathy. The montage in the film’s opening credits track, which tracks a childhood marked by hyperactivity and a propensity for violence, suggests that the film belongs to Silva – that somewhere along the 22-mile journey there’s an emotional one he’ll undergo. There isn’t. He starts off as an unfeeling douchebag who Only Cares About The Mission. He ends as an unfeeling douchebag who Only Cares About The Mission.
It typifies a film that revels in its own cynicism about international affairs while forgetting that audiences, who most probably agree, might want some heart, soul and humour along the way. The closing scenes hint at a sequel – or perhaps hopes for a longer, Bourne-style franchise. It seems fair to expect more Berg and Wahlberg collaborations in the future – let’s hope they focus on new ventures, and write this one off as collateral damage.
Mile 22 is in UK cinemas from 19th September.