Mark Wahlberg’s collaboration with director Peter Berg is starting to look like a thing. Mile 22 is their fourth movie together, after Lone Survivor (2013), Deepwater Horizon (2016) and Patriot’s Day (2016). Moreover these guys are in pre-production on their fifth, Wonderland, based on Ace Atkins’ 2013 novel. The latter, featuring a private eye called Spenser, could be the start of a franchise. Mile 22, which commits the cardinal movie sin of promising a sequel that is unlikely to be made, won’t.
Not that it is Berg and Wahlberg’s least financially successful film at the American box office – that would be their fact-based Boston Marathon bombing drama, Patriot’s Day. Mile 22, which co-stars Ronda Rousey, The Raid’s Iko Uwais and John Malkovich as ‘Mother’ promises and to some extent delivers slam-bang action. It offers a counter-intuitive form of popcorn movie, one where you spill it – so to speak – at fairly regular intervals.
Wahlberg plays James Silva, a member of a disavowed elite squad that do the jobs that the CIA won’t touch. When we first meet the group, two of them are lost in suburbia, claiming that their satellite navigation lies. They are in fact preparing for an assault on a Russian safe house-turned-storage facility. The editing (by Melissa Lawson Cheung and Colby Parker Jr, who worked with Berg on Battleship and Patriot’s Day) goes into overdrive between surveillance footage and actual mayhem as the bullets fly. Berg can stage an action sequence as well as the best of them, though Silva is more often seen holding a gun than shooting it.
Silva’s squad is broadly split between men and women, with Rousey and The Walking Dead’s Lauren Cohan as kick-ass females. Since Rousey isn’t known for her acting skills (whatever you say about those overly choreographed World Wrestling Federation fights) the bulk of the characterisation goes to Cohan whose character, Alice is going through a messy divorce, abetted by her phone which has an app that responds to her cursing. Silva has no such technological censor. Wahlberg channels his Daddy’s Home 2 co-star, Mel Gibson, by appearing to be unhinged: fast-talking, disrespectful, issuing harsh threats; he could get a job in the White House. Putting aside Boogie Nights for one minute (RIP Burt Reynolds), Wahlberg is at his best playing a hard working blue collar guy. We don’t believe in his bravado here; it doesn’t seem earned.
The main plot involves the team going to a pseudonymous Asian country to move an informant, Li Noor (Uwais) 22 miles to the safety of an aircraft. Li Noor has information that really matters and his government are trying to kill him. In this loose riff (or rip off) on the Bruce Willis-Mos Def action flick, 16 Blocks – another box-office underperformer – Silva and his crew inch Li Noor towards his destination unaware that someone else is coming to get them.
The plot turns on the extent to which the crew can trust Li Noor. Other than that, it is ninety-odd minutes of broad action in which Silva is invited to walk away or face the consequences (Daddy’s Home 3?).
With so much Asian money going into Hollywood – Mile 22 is released by STX films, which is underpinned by Chinese cash – the movie’s attitude to the continent is ambiguous. The film doesn’t feel grounded in America’s insecurities in the way that other Hollywood action films position themselves against the threat of the ‘other’. If anything, America, as characterised by Silva, is too bullishly over-confident. It deserves to have its balloon popped. Indeed, Wahlberg has zero charisma opposite Uwais, whose moves put the Hollywood star to shame.
Finally, there is the nominal Russian villain, not portrayed by an over-the-top European actor, rather as a slowly advancing presence. Under President Donald Trump, Russia is seen as less of a threat to US interests than China. Mile 22 is out of step with this foreign policy position. However, even liberal moviegoers aren’t buying it.
Berg and Wahlberg (together they sound like a law firm) have made what is possibly a subversive Hollywood film that invites the country to wake up and reconsider its ‘superior’ position. The ending ought to hit harder than it does, but ends as a damp squib.
Mile 22 is out 19th September!