Actor Mark Wahlberg and director Peter Berg mark their fourth collaboration (and first not based on a true story) with the new spy thriller, Mile 22. Which is fitting as they kind of deserve each other. Both have long resumes riddled with a few hits and lots of misses: when Berg is on point (as with the underrated The Kingdom), he can make a sharp geopolitical thriller with the best of them; when Wahlberg rises to the occasion–usually when he’s given a great piece of writing to work with or a stronger director–he can deliver a memorable performance like those in Boogie Nights or The Departed.
But this pair can also wallow in the predictable, the cliché, and the needlessly sentimental, with Mile 22 exhibiting all of their worst characteristics. This is a stock There Are Secret Operations The Government Doesn’t Want You To Know About programmer, complete with a generic, vaguely menacing fictional Southeast Asian setting, lots of running and screaming, “Go, go, go!”, a knot of betrayals and double-crosses, brutal violence and gunplay that would bring any human in real life to their knees (if not a funeral parlor), and characters as thinly drawn as a sketch on tracing paper.
Wahlberg speed-reads through his lines as James “Jimmy” Silva, whose seemingly manic personal style should probably earmark him for a nice long stay in a hospital instead of the frontlines of the CIA’s most covert operational force (they solve the problems that diplomacy can’t, yadda, yadda…). We meet Silva and his team as they bust up a Russian spy ring (ooh, how relevant!) hiding out in a suburban American neighborhood, and to say they have a license to kill and use it would be like saying that James Bond enjoys his booze.
It is here we meet the rest of the team, including Alice Kerr (Lauren Cohan), Sam Snow (Ronda Rousey), and William “Dougie” Douglas III (Carlo Alban), with only Alice given a defining characteristic–she’s a divorced mother, and her life is conflicted between her very dangerous job and taking care of her daughter from afar. We are also introduced to Overwatch, the remote surveillance and command post that guides the team through every mission under the leadership of Bishop (John Malkovich).
Two years after the Russian job, Silva and the gang are stationed in the blandly named Southeast Asian nation of Indocarr, where an intelligence asset and Indocarr Special Forces officer named Li Noor shows up at the American embassy with an encrypted hard drive. On it are the locations of some recently stolen radioactive material that will be used by terrorists to make dirty bombs if it’s not retrieved. Noor’s price for this information? He wants to get out of Indocarr, so Silva’s team is entrusted with getting him on board a U.S. aircraft that’s 22 miles away before hostile forces within the local government can kill him and anyone protecting him.
Noor is played by the Indonesian film and martial arts star Iko Uwais, best known to audiences here as the lead in the stunning The Raid and The Raid 2. Those films overcame some of the same issues–routine plotting, maudlin character dynamics–by acting as a showcase for an incredible display of the Indonesian fighting style known as silat, turning both movies into unforgettably intense ballets of fisticuffs, kicks, and bloodshed, all while Uwais did nearly every stunt.
Uwais does a lot of his own stuntwork here too, but what could have been an impressive American film debut for this explosively physical performer is utterly blown by Berg’s choice to cut the movie as if he was working on the edit while riding a rollercoaster. Berg has never been terrific with action (despite making a lot of action movies), but Mile 22 marks a low point for him. The fight scenes here are rendered almost completely incoherent, and Uwais’s prowess in particular is severely hampered by the fact that one can barely glimpse what the guy is doing, as in one scene where he fends off two assassins in a hospital room with his hands almost literally tied behind his back. Even the more standard battle sequences, such as a chase through the labyrinthine corridors of a massive apartment complex, are nearly inscrutable in terms of where everyone is and who they’re shooting at.
It’s an error that the movie never recovers from, notwithstanding that the rest of the film is about as emotionally involving as a video game. There are explosions, hails of bullets, buckets of blood, and all the expected deaths, but by the time the story gets to one last twist–a jolt that’s supposed to drive home some sort of overarching message about the kind of clandestine warfare these folks are involved in–the viewer has simply been rendered numb by both the carnage and the haphazard visual esthetics.
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Which is a shame, because with some better writing and filmmaking, Mile 22 might have turned out at least somewhat interesting. The notion that Silva’s team is essentially comprised of invisible people (when an Overwatch mission is launched, they must all resign from the U.S. government and are no longer considered citizens, so that the U.S. cannot be held responsible for their actions) is an intriguing one: what kind of person does that turn you into? Can you have a life within those parameters? Would one willingly want to have a family?
Those questions are, at most, given a quick once-over and dispatched as soon as Berg starts flinging the camera around again, and Wahlberg does his “I’m talking fast so I can sound smart without really saying anything” routine. Weirdly both star and director seem to enjoy working this way together, but the distance between their efforts and Mile 22 being a good movie is just too far.
Mile 22 is out in theaters Friday, Aug. 17.