Mile 22 feels a lot like director Peter Berg saw the Raid movies and thought, “Hey cool, I could do something like that.” And, on his first break from depicting real people in three movies (his last three were Patriot’s Day, Deepwater Horizon, and Lone Survivor), he tried to make a similarly straightforward action movie. Only whereas the Raid movies proved that the most important things in action are execution and simplicity of purpose — one guy, trying to escape a place, with a bunch of dudes he has to kill standing in his way — Peter Berg, god bless him, can’t help but be Peter Berg. He gets a middling grade on execution and fails simplicity of purpose so spectacularly that it’s nearly transcendent. Mile 22 is such a freakish chimera of disparate genre influences that it’s kind of fascinating.
In theory, Mile 22’s basic plot does sound like a great Raid-type movie. Mark Wahlberg — as agent James Silva of the CIA’s paramilitary unit, Overwatch — has to smuggle a rogue agent of a corrupt fictional southeast Asian country (played by Iko Uwais of The Raid fame) 22 miles and get him out of the country before he’ll give up a computer code revealing the location of enough stolen cesium to destroy six major cities.
I say “in theory” because, in practice, Berg can’t seem to help taking that fairly simple premise and once again filling it full of national security jargon, complex geopolitical framing, irrelevant character studies, and enough extemporaneous literary references to fill Aaron Sorkin’s ping pong room. Silva screams about John Hersey’s Hiroshima (taking great pains to refer to him as Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist John Hersey, to keep anyone from missing the reference), brings up Lincoln’s second inaugural for no real reason, and works for a flat-top haircutted John Malkovich (!!), who spews forth HL Mencken’s quote about hoisting the black flag and slitting throats, apropos of absolutely nothing. Or maybe that was screenwriter Lea Carpenter who came up with this stuff? Whatever the case, we get it, guys, you read.
Another complicating factor is Berg’s inability to keep from ruminating about the inner lives of our CIA hit-squad goons. Walberg’s character leads a team that includes Alice Kerr’s character, who’s going through a rough divorce, Ronda Rousey’s character, who has thoughts on buying a goat (something I swear to god she reveals basically in the middle of a firefight) and oh hey did I mention Mark Wahlberg’s character is bipolar?
That’s right, Berg called Silva “the world’s first bipolar action hero” in an interview, proving that Peter Berg has either never seen Homeland or doesn’t consider Carrie an action hero. Luckily we don’t have to watch Wahlberg’s character get electroshock therapy or spazz out to the jazz trumpet, his bipolarness mostly manifests as a tendency to scream at people and leak literary references. He also keeps a rubber band around his wrist that he snaps periodically to calm himself. Sure, okay, everybody’s gotta have a “thing.”
Wahlberg’s Silva character was allegedly based on Trump’s splotchy white nationalist former advisor Steve Bannon, and comes off almost as unlikable, which doesn’t seem entirely intentional. I like Mark Wahlberg, but “slightly unhinged national security fanatic” might be above his pay grade. He basically does that angry fast-talking thing he did in The Departed, a kind of you-must-be-the-othah-guy writ large, which turns out to be much less effective in this large of a dosage. “Talk fast” isn’t really a motivation.
Childhood motivations and complex character studies aside, Mile 22 is supposed to be a straightforward shoot-em-up (I think). And Berg does shoot the ultra-violence with a certain brash muscularity, a gory matter-of-factness that’s so brutal it’s almost campy. Or he does when he’s directing the gunfight scenes, anyway. Much as Berg seems to have been inspired by Iko Uwais, he’s something less than a natural at directing hand-to-hand combat. Shaky camera and quick cuts work great at mimicking chaos when you’re trying to make an older man — Liam Neeson, say — look like he’s faster and more spry than he really is. When applied to a legitimately mesmerizing and acrobatic martial arts performer like Uwais though, it’s kind of like dousing a delicately poached lobster in Guy Fieri’s habanero donkey sauce. Just let us see the fighting! At one point Berg tries to cross-cut between two or three different fist fights, all shot equally shakily. I couldn’t tell whether we were watching two or three separate fights, let alone who was punching who.
And then there’s the question of ideology. For the past few years, Berg has come off a little like a guy who worships men in uniform, loves tactical jargon, and generally jacks off to the idea of extrajudicial governmental authority. At first glance, it seems like that’s what’s going on in Mile 22. The script’s Sorkin-y qualities, after all, extend not just to the wordy dialogue and eleventh-grade literary references but also to the air of competence porn, where government hackers can hack into streetlights and cheeky drone pilots can drop pinpoint strikes remotely without hitting their own guys walking distance away. They’re so good! Jenkins! Eyes on! Watch my six while I flank this bitch!
And yet, just when it appears we’re expected to revel in summary executions and enhanced interrogations, Berg throws in a complicating wrinkle. Our American “heroes” do face consequences for their hubris. This aspect of the story will probably be lost on most of the viewership, Scarface style, and I don’t know that it’s quite enough to justify all the war porn, but it is just enough to allow the careful viewer to believe that maybe Peter Berg isn’t a straight-up jingoist.
He is a capitalist, however, and it doesn’t take a trip to Lea Carpenter’s IMDB page, where her only other writing credit is for “Untitled Mile 22 Sequel,” to know that Mile 22 is intended as the first of a series (in the franchise filmmaking era, basically everything is, so that’s not a knock on Berg). It plays a lot like a pilot, in fact, an origin story for an original franchise. And what a fantastically complex pitch it is — it’s like The Raid meets Homeland meets The Bourne Identity meets Aaron Sorkin with night vision goggles and a spit cup! Did I mention there’s also a callback to “say hi to your mother for me” at a climactic moment? Because that’s in there too.
It’s all very strange. Yet also… unique. And I have a soft spot for anyone who seems like they’re having trouble containing their own ideas.