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Manly men get moody in ‘Mile 22’

By Harry Windsor
Mark Wahlberg and director Peter Berg flirt with worldly cynicism in this action thriller

Mile 22 marks the fourth collaboration between Mark Wahlberg and Peter Berg, an actor turned Michael Mann-protégé whose previous films as a director have demonstrated his admiration for the American military, law enforcement and Friday night football, as well as a Mann-like interest in manly men and their processes. The pair’s last three films have dramatised real-life tragedies, with Wahlberg as a heroic SEAL (in 2013’s Lone Survivor), a heroic Boston cop (2016’s Patriots Day) and a heroic oil rigger (the same year’s Deepwater Horizon). Mile 22 has no such grounding in actual events, and it replaces the hallowed sincerity of those films with quips and something close to worldly cynicism.

Wahlberg plays Jimmy Silva, whose backstory is filched just about wholesale from Ian Fleming. It gets filled in during the credit sequence, which riffles through home-video footage of Silva’s childhood, a TV news bulletin showing a car crash that left the boy orphaned, and military documents highlighting his outstanding service record as an adult. We meet him staking out a Russian safe house in the American ’burbs, flanked by fellow operatives working for Overwatch, an off-the-books unit called upon when other military and diplomatic options are exhausted.

That mission ends in multiple fatalities, and the next time we meet the crew, more than a year later, they’ve adopted diplomatic cover at an embassy in the fictional South-East Asian city of Indocarr. Their cover is swiftly discarded, however, when local agent Li Noor (The Raid’s Iko Uwais) promises to reveal the location of stolen radioactive caesium if he’s given asylum in the United States. Overwatch is called upon to chaperone Noor across the 22 miles from the embassy to the airstrip and spirit him out of the country. His own government, of course, has other plans. The extraction begins in SUVs before becoming a foot chase, with Silva and the other operatives (played by ex-MMA star Ronda Rousey and The Walking Dead’s Lauren Cohan) eventually holed up in a tenement. The maze of under-lit corridors in which they engage in close-quarters tussles recalls not only The Raid but also the climax of Berg’s own 2007 Middle East thriller, The Kingdom.

Throughout the chase that makes up the film’s second half, Berg cuts between the gunfights and a control room in which Mother (John Malkovich in a flat-top) corrals a squad of technicians keeping track of the team via drone surveillance, using it to coordinate their exit route. There are also brief interludes with Russian military types on a plane, clearly with a stake in the Indocarr extraction, as well as extraneous scenes in which a besuited Silva is interrogated about the operation after the fact. These scenes see him monologuing about “the great game” with an aggressive sense of superiority. But hyperverbality doesn’t really suit Wahlberg, whose best performances – in Boogie Nights, in The Yards, in The Fighter – are defined by inarticulacy, by a certain reticence that contrasts touchingly with his Calvin Klein-ready looks. There’s a gentleness to those performances, too, which perhaps explains why so many of the films in which he’s played a blunt-instrument action hero have been forgettable – they misapprehend what makes him interesting.

Silva’s wristband-snapping, on-the-spectrum obnoxiousness is the least successful conceit in the film, which is otherwise tightly plotted, expertly choreographed and, at 95 minutes, unfashionably fleet. There’s a texture and grit to these action scenes, shot on real locations rather than a soundstage. One goon’s death is so over-the-top and elongated you’ll squirm in your seat and hoot at the same time. And the mortality of the film’s characters summons a genuine sense of suspense. Most recent American blockbusters feel weightless in comparison.

Berg’s style is not dissimilar to Michael Bay’s. He runs multiple handheld cameras, and he loves a good explosion. But he’s more interested in narrative than Bay is, and he doesn’t use a howitzer to pick a lock. Right before the first attack on Silva’s convoy, Berg cuts to a helicopter shot of the city (actually Bogotá, Colombia) and lifts out Jeff Russo’s jangling electronic score. A second later we watch from above as a vehicle explodes in the distance, as we would in a newscast: without embellishment. Topographic images are everywhere, in fact, with footage captured by CCTV and satellites regularly filling the screen. Mother is able to slow down sequences we’ve just seen in real time, alerting Silva’s team to the fact that, say, a bomb has been planted on their chassis by a passing bike. But the film is also alert to the dangers of such technological advantages, and in a way that underlines the director’s politics. It’s a story, finally, about the ease with which comms can be hacked, and the disastrous consequences for nations as well as for the human beings that do their bidding.

Harry Windsor

Harry Windsor is a critic for The Hollywood Reporter and the former editor of Inside Film.

Mile 22

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