When Mark Wahlberg told a Men’s Journal reporter that he probably could have defused the hostile takeover of one of the 9/11 flights, he wasn’t just committing an insensitive, dunderheaded faux pas of run amok machismo. He was also providing the world a preview of the next few years of his Hollywood career. Like some big-budget extension of the star’s overactive imagination, the movies Wahlberg has made with director Peter Berg have inserted him into real-life crises and tragedies: a Navy SEAL operation gone FUBAR, the BP oil spill, the Boston Marathon bombing. Mile 22, the pair’s fourth collaboration, isn’t based on any specific real-life incident that Mark Wahlberg probably believes he could have been helpful during. But in casting the actor as a special-forces badass making a secret difference on the international stage, the film is cut from the same cloth as those earlier dramatic re-creations: It allows Wahlberg to play pretend as a big-boy American hero, while also providing Berg another opportunity to fawn over the virtues (and hardware) of U.S. men of action.
In Mile 22, Wahlberg plays James “Jimmy” Silva, leader of an elite CIA paramilitary task force. Jimmy is definitely the kind of guy who believes that he could have stopped 9/11 if he had been there; one of his superiors, in fact, encourages that kind of what-if revisionism by scrawling onto a whiteboard the names of famous disasters (not just 9/11, but also Pearl Harbor, the Tet Offensive, the Paris terrorist attacks, etc.) and then implying that all could have been averted with more presumably Wahlbergian “imagination.” As a dramatic actor, Wahlberg has a habit of defaulting to an aura of perpetual irritation. Jimmy Silva, who barrels into every conversation like it’s a waste of his precious time, gives his shit-talking Departed lieutenant a run for his money in the testiness department. When one of his teammates, Sam Snow (Ronda Rousey), sits down to celebrate her birthday the day before a big operation, Jimmy knocks the dessert out of her hands: “No fucking birthday cake.” Later, he lectures his tech team about the stakes of a mission by reciting from memory passages from John Hersey’s Hiroshima. “He doesn’t like computer people,” Sam explains to the desk jockeys, before adding, “Fucking nerds.”
After a hectically edited opening sequence that finds Jimmy and his team raiding a Russian safe house in American suburbia, Mile 22 jumps forward a few months, relocating the team to a fictional, vaguely established Southeast Asian city called Indocarr. The film’s convoluted plot could, without much tinkering, be reshaped into a Mission: Impossible adventure. As in this summer’s Fallout, a cache of radioactive materials has gone missing. To find it, team member Alice Kerr (Lauren Cohan) calls in her intelligence source on the ground: special-forces officer Li Noor (The Raid’s Iko Uwais), who’s working against his own government as a double agent. Li has access to an encrypted disc with the location of the stolen Caesium-137, but he’ll only provide the pass codes after being granted safe passage to U.S. soil. And so Jimmy and his workaholic comrades go on ghost protocol, officially severing ties to their government so they can unofficially escort Li from the U.S. embassy to an extraction site 22 miles away. Of course, they’re sure to encounter some resistance along the way.
It’s a strong if familiar action-movie premise, one that everyone from Takashi Miike to Bruce Willis has tried on for size. Yet in almost all respects, but especially structurally, Mile 22 is a mess. The movie has burned half of its surprisingly short running time before the mission in question even gets underway. There’s also no third act to speak of, to the point where it’s unclear whether that’s purely a product of shameless franchise aspirations (an implicit “to be continued” has scarcely ever seemed so presumptuous) or some hasty editing-room reconfiguration. The script, by first-time screenwriter Lea Carpenter, leans heavily on load-bearing voice-over: Beyond a retrospective framing device that allows Wahlberg to whisper nuggets of realpolitik wisdom (“You think you know the definition of collusion? You have no idea”), there’s also a scene where John Malkovich, as the team’s long-distance American shot-caller, summarizes the plot so far. The movie often feels cobbled together, like one of the jigsaw puzzles Jimmy assembles to unwind.
Berg’s rah-rah spectacles can usually be counted on, at least, for some solid, legible action; it was the saving grace of Lone Survivor, the glorified recruitment video that launched his ongoing creative partnership with Wahlberg. But in Mile 22, Berg privileges a frantic style—heavy on cutaways to the omniscient vantage of security cams and drone footage—that often makes a hash of idiot-proof set pieces. (Berg, ever the uncritical patriot, breaks with the paranoid dread of the Bourne series, seeing the inescapable Orwellian reach of the surveillance state as really cool, not scary.) Unsurprisingly, the best moments belong to Uwais; even the frenetic editing can’t rob one close-quarters brawl (another parallel to Fallout) of its awe factor. But casting an expert martial artist in a supporting role does create a certain… imbalance. It’s hard to buy that a superhuman cipher like Li needs a CIA babysitter, just as it’s hard to take Wahlberg seriously as a formidable tough guy when he’s sharing scenes with the star of The Raid.
With Berg dicing the plot and action into mincemeat, the only thing that comes in crystal clear is his steady hero worship of the armed forces, which here extends to a slightly disturbing admiration for off-the-books, no-rules warfare. Did the Sicario sequel come too close to fetishizing shadowy U.S. intervention? It looks like a damning critique compared to Mile 22, which wants us to cheer when Cohan’s agent threatens to torture information out of her source and to roar with laughter at a drone operator begging for permission to wipe a particularly persistent enemy operative off the map. This team’s previous films together could at least be celebrated as earnest tributes to real-life courage under fire: Wahlberg was playing actual people, or at least composite amalgams of them. But just as Mile 22 depicts American soldiers unencumbered by the need for transparency or the imperative to follow rules of engagement, the film’s entirely fictional story frees the director and his star to dramatize their compatible fantasies: of might making right, and of Mark Wahlberg kicking ass and taking names, like he totally would have on that plane.