Over their past few films together, director Peter Berg and his leading-man muse Mark Wahlberg have grown into Hollywood’s tag-team purveyors of populist red-meat entertainment. Sometimes their movies work; sometimes they don’t. Either way, they’re sure to be accompanied by dog-whistle calls to gung-ho American patriotism. No doubt the world has become a far more complicated place in the years since 9/11. But there’s never anything too complicated when it comes to the 20-20 moral clarity of Wahlberg’s macho characters.
Mile 22, their latest collaboration following Lone Survivor, Deepwater Horizon, and Patriots Day, is crammed with tech-war jargon and black ops buzzwords. But I’m still not sure what it’s trying to say. It’s both a bit confusing and a bit confused. Fortunately, it’s also loaded with some of the crunchiest action scenes since the John Wick movies thanks to Indonesian martial-arts maestro Iko Uwais.
Uwais plays Li Noor, a mysterious foreign asset who appears outside of the U.S. embassy in a Southeast Asian country holding a disc (or is it a bomb … or a disc bomb?) demanding to be given asylum in America. In exchange, he promises to provide the CIA with the code that will prevent its nuclear holocaust detonation and will also pinpoint caches of radioactive fuel scattered around the globe. The agent in charge of transporting Li Noor to safety is Wahlberg’s Jimmy Silva — a hotheaded, motormouthed blunt weapon of a man who lives, eats, and sleeps the job. He’s also got some sort of mental short circuit that forces him to wear a rubber bracelet that he snaps to calm his racing mind. This is the kind of shorthand that passes for character development in Berg-Wahlberg movies.
The problem is Li Noor’s own government wants him too. And they’re not going to make his escape easy. Wahlberg and his team of lethal, who-has-time-for-sleep ops (Ronda Rousey, Carlo Alban, and a terrific Lauren Cohan from The Walking Dead) are led by John Malkovich in a flat-top buzz cut and Chuck Taylor sneakers (more character development!). And their mission is a dangerous 22-mile obstacle course of bullets, grenades, and high-speed car chases. It’s like Clint Eastwood’s The Gauntlet for the age of global terror.
It’s all standard action stuff, but what gooses it to being something slightly better are its spasms of insane pulpy carnage mostly administered by Uwais, whom genre fans will already know as the star of the over-the-top Raid films. He’s a one-man special effect, and his acrobatic brand of ultra-violence is both jaw-droppingly thrilling and not for the squeamish. He’s also the main reason to see the movie.
What’s less impressive is Lea Carpenter’s script, which starts off okay and gets increasingly absurd as it goes along. Nods to current events are made, but not followed up on. And while Berg has proven over and over again that he has an almost documentary-like mastery of the way soldiers and CIA types talk, by the end his latest film more or less just throws up its hands and shrugs, going for a twist it never earns. Maybe he and Wahlberg are hoping that you’re too intoxicated by all of the bluster and bone-crunching to notice. Who knows, maybe pesky things like that shouldn’t really matter in a movie like this. But they should. And they do. C+