Consider the possibility that on some Hollywood evening in the past few years, a modestly successful, if not critically adored, actor-director tandem—let’s call them Mark and Peter—popped Sicario in a Blu-ray player for another glimpse at one of the best action movies of the new century.
And consider, also, the possibility that when Denis Villeneuve’s crisply told border thriller ended, the actor and director started masturbating until one of them had an idea.
It’s unlikely that’s how Mile 22, Peter Berg’s fourth consecutive film starring Mark Wahlberg in some kind of brutal setting, came about. But the finished product suggests that scenario wasn’t far off. Over the past few years, audiences have been treated to a small renaissance in tightly packed action movies—the aforementioned Sicario, Hell or High Water, Hanna—that discard with flouncy franchise elements in favor of immersing viewers in the brutality of real combat. Berg and Wahlberg must have wanted in.
Mile 22 misses its target completely, creating characters whose supposedly charming perks only make them more off-putting, and punishing the theater with so much flag-waving gore that the violence becomes tedious, not gripping. But, as we’re told, it’s so a band of black-ops commandos led by Wahlberg can engage in a “higher form of patriotism.”
In his previous outings with Berg, Wahlberg played, in order: a Navy SEAL in Lone Survivor, an oil driller in Deepwater Horizon, and a Boston cop in Patriot’s Day. This time, he’s Jimmy Silva, an operative with the CIA’s super-secret “Overwatch” group and the latest in a line of jingoistic, gun-toting Massholes he’s played over his career.
Jimmy is an allegedly fascinating person. After a botched mission—which features the death of former New York Rangers forward Sean Avery—we get a credits sequence in which we’re told that Jimmy is a genius-level orphan recruited into U.S. Special Forces and became one of the most lethal killing machines around.
Adult Jimmy, aside from occasionally rattling off Jeopardy answers, is memorable more for his emotional nastiness, a quality that extends throughout the cast. When a colleague, played by Rhonda Rousey, attempts to celebrate her birthday with a slice of cake at a café, he smashes it to the floor and loudly announces “No birthday cake!” Later, he berates two computer analysts about why they don’t know about the element cesium (Mile 22’s McGuffin) and leaves the room. Rousey’s character explains that Jimmy “doesn’t like computer people,” before tacking on a kicker of “fucking nerds.”
Berg’s eye for action, which dominates the last 70 minutes of this 94-minute slog, is meticulous and exacting. But once it starts, it never pauses. The mission picks up with Jimmy and his team posted at the U.S. Embassy in the fictional southeast Asian destination of “Indocarr,” a failed state that resembles a pastiche of Jakarta, Manila, and pre-tourism-boom Bogotá. It’s up to the team to transport a defector (Iko Uwais, who starred in the excellent The Raid) to the nearest airfield, 22 miles away.
Once the trip starts, the local authorities throw everything they have at Jimmy’s team, and they flinch only half a beat after every bullet, punch, grenade, or knife-blow lands. It all goes rather poorly. For what we’re told, this is the baddest-ass of all badass covert groups, yet Jimmy’s team struggles against the seemingly limitless number of local cops. But Berg shows it all: gunshot wounds, necks wrenched open, extreme burns. We’ve seen this stuff in other “realistic” action movies, but here it plays as a gratuitous boast of the filmmakers’ manliness.
Villeneuve’s leftover influence from Sicario is obvious, too. Action sequences are interrupted by closed-circuit footage and planes and drones hovering silently above. Are we supposed to pause and consider the moral quandaries of modern warfare? Sicario inspired discussion because it presented an unromantic—albeit heightened—of the fight against drug cartels on the U.S.-Mexico border. In Mile 22, any qualms about drone strikes are undone with a celebratory fist pump by a drone operator when an unmanned aerial vehicle obliterates a baddie’s car.
And while the drones may be focused, the narrative does not. Ninety-four minutes is not very long, and yet in that brief time, Berg and his screenwriters make a mess. Attempts to connect the story to the real world fall flat, like Jimmy’s boss’s collection of presidential bobbleheads, including—yes—Donald Trump, or a line in which Jimmy asks “you think you know about collusion, election meddling?” despite Mile 22 having nothing to do with democratic institutions. And a series of interstitials in which Jimmy is either debriefed or psychoanalyzed is beyond explanation.
In interviews before Mile 22’s release, Wahlberg and Berg floated it as the first entry in what they see as a franchise. It’s easy to see Wahlberg’s envy: He might’ve starred in two Transformers films, but he’s got no role in the Marvel, DC, Star Wars, or Fast & Furious universes that dominate moviedom. And that’s a bit of a shame for an actor who’s been so compelling in films as varied as Boogie Nights, The Departed, The Other Guys, and The Fighter. But there’s no snappy joke, prosthetic device, or action sequence to make Mile 22 deserve a Mile 23.