The best thing that can be said about Mark Wahlberg’s filmography is that the rapper-turned-actor keeps things mercifully basic. Put Marky Mark in two Transformers movies, two Teds, and two Daddy’s Homes, and studios can line their pockets alongside one of the highest-paid stars in Hollywood. What Wahlberg cannot do is handle complicated, convoluted scripts. There is no alternate reality where M. Night Shyamalan’s The Happening is anything but a dud, but in the hands and very confused face of Mark Wahlberg, it becomes transcendently terrible.
If anyone should know the strengths and weaknesses of Wahlberg, it’s director Peter Berg. Berg and Wahlberg have collaborated on three bio-dramas in the past five years: Lone Survivor, Deepwater Horizon, and Patriots Day. These stories—about a Navy SEAL operation gone wrong, the 2010 BP oil spill, and the Boston Marathon bombing, respectively—are enhanced by being, well, based on real events, and allowing Wahlberg to insert himself into the role of Exceptional American Patriot. (After all, this is the guy who has said without a hint of irony that he could have stopped the hijacking of one of the doomed 9/11 flights.) These movies aren’t for me, but I understand how they sell tickets.
Given the simple yet effective framework of Berg and Wahlberg’s previous collaborations, the spectacular failure of Mile 22, out Friday, feels like even more of a disappointment. It’s the most baffling major release since The Snowman. Where to begin? In the fictional Mile 22, Wahlberg plays Jimmy Silva, the leader of an elite task force, who Berg declares to be the “first bipolar action hero” and whose character was also inspired by sentient sewage leak and former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon (seriously). Berg’s portrayal of Silva’s supposed bipolarism is like hearing The Departed’s Mark Wahlberg on 2X speed—he is incomprehensible, and is tasked with explaining a Bourne script that’s gone through a paper shredder.
Silva and his team—featuring Alice Kerr (Lauren Cohan, who’s genuinely better off sticking with The Walking Dead), a covert operative who spends half the film using a Skype-esque divorce app (?) to talk to her daughter to share cupcake recipes; Sam Snow (Ronda Rousey), another operative who calls computer experts “fucking nerds”; and James Bishop (John Malkovich with a depressing flat-top haircut), a Converse-wearing operations leader who goes by the codename “Mother”—must extract an asset out of a fictional Southeast Asian city called Indocarr, which is a lazy attempt at trying to avoid insulting Indonesia. The asset, Li Noor, played by The Raid star Iko Uwais, holds some valuable intel about missing “fear powder,” a chemical weapon that could wipe out entire cities. Silva and Co. must get Noor to the extraction point—only after gaining asylum will Noor give away the locations of the scattered fear powder—which is 22 miles from the American embassy before the plane takes off, while being pursued by the Indocarr government’s special forces. We get flash-forwards to Silva talking to a government stooge about the operation gone wrong, but trying to follow the character’s hurried cadence and the bizarre machinations of the plot feels like inserting a flash grenade into your brain. There are also some evil Russians, because it’s 2018, though they don’t have any direct interactions with Silva’s team; they’re seemingly being saved for the sequel, should it be green-lit. (Please, God, no.)
Berg was clearly inspired by crowd-pleasing action films like The Raid that follow a familiar structure—there is nothing wrong with the basest version of this story, which is, basically, a Race Against Time. But for a film that clocks in at a succinct 95 minutes, Mile 22 burdens itself with expository dialogue, which references subjects including, but not limited to: John Hersey’s Hiroshima, H.L. Mencken quotes, and Abraham Lincoln’s second inauguration. Let Mark Wahlberg shoot things; never let him explain that Hersey is a Pulitzer-winning author who relayed the grounding realism of nuclear holocaust.
Action flicks with nonsensical plots can be easily salvaged by stunning fights and stunt choreography—this summer’s Mission: Impossible—Fallout is proof. (Do I even need to mention that the catalyst for the plot in John Wick was the murder of a dog?) Mile 22, though, even fails on that front. In Uwais, who Berg says was the reason he wanted to make Mile 22 in the first place, the film has a magnetic performer, capable of superhuman acrobatics (please watch this) and who requires very little editing on the basis that he can do all his own stunts and make them look extremely dank. Yet, Mile 22 treats Uwais like he’s Liam Neeson or Denzel Washington, an aged actor who needs a shaky cam and quick cuts to compensate for a lack of physical ability. The frenetic cutting turns even Uwais’s best fight scene, which begins with him handcuffed to a hospital bed while being attacked by two men, into an incomprehensible mess. At one point, Uwais begins scaling a wall as he’s grappling with one of the assailants, and the audience is assaulted with more than five cuts—that alone should be grounds for a prison sentence.
If there is a discernible message to the narrative chaos of Mile 22, it’s the disconcerting notion that extrajudicial American intervention in foreign countries is commendable and oftentimes necessary. One member of Malkovich’s surveillance team is, essentially, a dude who pilots a drone and blows things up. The character’s trigger-happy impatience and eventual jubilation at getting to bomb someone from the sky is played for laughs—American exceptionalism reaching a shockingly tone-deaf nadir.
Unlike The Snowman, which is so awful as to be avant-garde, makes for a fun drinking game, and belongs in the so-bad-it’s-good movie hall of fame, Mile 22 has no humor to compensate for its failures. By featuring action that defies human cognition, an outdated ideology of American patriotism, and Mark Wahlberg spewing dialogue faster than ever before, Mile 22 becomes torture. The film’s only saving grace is its scant runtime—and my retroactive appreciation for the comparatively lucid Transformers films.