CIA officer James Silva (Mark Wahlberg) escorts Li Noor (Iko Uwais) in Mile 22.
After four consecutive movies together, director Peter Berg and star Mark Wahlberg want to make honest men of one another and turn their fruitful partnership into a proper franchise. The violent, opaque, tonally scrambled, but— surprisingly! — not-idea-starved action thriller Mile 22 is fully declassified in its bid for sequeldom.
Like so many genre exercises with high-style aspirations — 2016’s feature Atomic Blonde and the first season of the HBO series True Detective are recent examples — this muddled shoot-’em-up uses the framing device of a post-operational debriefing to allow its hero to narrate its events in hindsight, peppering his account with time-is-a-flat-circle pseudo-profundities.
“Diplomacy rarely works once the match has been lit to start the fire,” broods the Artist Formerly Known as Marky Mark (Known Associates: The Funky Bunch), radiating a distinct absence of good vibrations.
Wahlberg is clearly trying to stretch a little with his performance as James Silva, a cranky, motor-mouthed operative of the C.I.A.’s super-duper-secret service “Ground Branch,” who’s implied to be on the autism spectrum. A caffeinated montage of his early life over the opening credits shows us his mother giving him a rubber band to snap against his wrist when he feels overwhelmed, and Berg cuts to the now-fortysomething Silva fidgeting with his band throughout the balance of the movie.
It’s a less grating device than the frequent use of aerial surveillance footage, which “Overwatch” leader John Malkovich uses to direct the actions of his shooters on the ground, occasionally ordering his squad of hackers to change traffic lights from red to green, or in more dire scenarios, launch missiles via drone. Anyway, much of the meager pleasure the movie delivers come from watching Wahlberg and his lieutenant, The Walking Dead’s Lauren Cohan, play warriors whose only sop to likability comes from their competence. Competence always plays.
Those two and their other compatriots — former MMA champion Ronda Rousey, and Carlo Alban — are charged with escorting a high-value defector from “Indocarr” (played mostly by Bogota, Columbia) from that made-up country’s American embassy to an airfield 22 miles away. That means driving/running/carrying him through a dense urban gauntlet while dozens of faceless soldiers try to kill them.
But! “The package” they’re transporting is no shrinking violet — he’s Iko Uwais, the 35-year-old Jakarta-born martial-arts star who broke out when the Indonesian action flick The Raid: Redemption became a global hit back in 2011. He promises to reveal the location of the stolen radiological agent “Cesium 139” — the gruesome destructive potential of which Wahlberg lays out in an unintentionally comic speech — only once he’s safely aboard an airplane bound for the United States. Strangely, the movie gives us only one big set piece showcasing Uwais’s silat abilities — when he fights off two assassins while handcuffed to a gurney — and it doesn’t let Rousey have a hand-to-hand fight scene at all. What gives?
Berg is better at building tension than he is at action. Then again, maybe Mile 22’s chases and gun battles are chaotic and disorienting by design. The movie basically presents itself as the bloodier, more troubling, more plausible iteration of the kind of skullduggery that usually looks like a hoot in the 007 films and the various Missions: Impossible. Where those diversions — this summer’s MI: Fallout especially — make a point of having their heroes go to fantastic and absurd extremes to minimize the loss of life, Mile 22 really wants you to understand that these sorts of operations invariably result in innocent people being killed, presumably to prevent even more innocent people from being killed. It’s least successful when it’s putting these sentiments in Silva’s mouth: “A government is capable of vengeance,” he mumbles. “A government is capable of slaughter!”
Wahlberg isn’t the only one whose dialogue occasionally sounds like its been run through a translation app a few times. Cohan’s character, whose devotion to her top-secret job has cost her her marriage and her relationship with her young daughter, uses a phone app called “Family Wizard” to record and censor her conversations and correspondence with her ex-husband (played by director Berg). That’s an interesting device that feels like it deserves a home in a better movie. “I’m not going to be washing strawberry jam out of my swimsuit this summer!” she complains when she realizes she won’t be seeing her kid anytime soon. It takes an elite professional with nerves of titanium to sell lines like that. It’s theoretically possible that Wahlberg and Cohan are the best there is at what they do. But Mile 22 isn’t very nice.