The collaboration between director Peter Berg and actor Mark Wahlberg has resulted in some effective true-life action films, marked by whiplash cinematography and hyperkinetic editing. That high-strung style invigorated the recreation of actual events in “Lone Survivor,” “Deepwater Horizon” and “Patriots Day,” but in their latest joint effort, a totally fictional spy story, it’s ramped up to such an excessive degree that the movie can best be described as cinematically hysterical—and exhausting. While barely an hour-and-a-half long, the incessant display of rapid-fire wordplay, chases, gunfire and brutal one-on-one combat feels endless, with a final twist that’s speciously clever.
Wahlberg is cast as Jimmy Silva, a man with (as a super-fast montage informs us) a troubled childhood who, after a stint in the military, has become the head agent in Overwatch, an ultra-secretive CIA squad that handles assignments that can’t be dealt with through ordinary (read: legal) channels. A voluble guy who spews out a stream of remarks that are imperious, rude, and mostly profane, and often makes risky choices in the field, he’s the subject of behind-the-back comments from underlings who speculate about the precise nature of his mental problem.
In the movie’s prologue, the team, under the watchful gaze of Bishop, aka Mother (John Malkovich), who observes everything and makes strategic decisions from his array of drone-supplied monitors, invades a Russian safe house in a US suburb that intel suggests is storing either a supply of some radioactive substance usable in a dirty bomb, or data about where it can be found. Unfortunately, the information proves flawed and the operation goes awry. All the Russians in the place are killed, including a teenager (David Garelik) Silva finishes off in a final flourish.
After plenty of back-and-forth recriminations among the crew—and some volatility from Silva’s chief lieutenant Alice Kerr (Lauren Cohan), who’s locked in a bitter dispute with her ex-husband—the team is given another chance some time later when Li Noor (Iko Uwais), a cop in an Asian country called Indocarr that looks suspiciously like Indonesia, shows up at the US Embassy claiming to know where the dangerous material is—in fact, he has some sort of encrypted disc that contains the information. But he’ll give up the code that will open it only after he’s been given asylum in the US—and been taken to a nearby airfield for transport to America.
The rest of the picture—after the cop effectively proves his bona fides by vanquishing a couple of would-be assassins in a brutal fight, even though he’s handcuffed—consists of the eventful twenty-two mile trip to the plane, with the team and its “package” pursued by an army of motorcycle thugs headed by a ruthless local government fixer called Axel (Sam Medina), apparently because the cop is threatening to reveal things that will bring down the regime. There’s much mayhem along the way, in the course of which Li Noor takes up arms alongside Silva, Kerr and their comrades and earns their trust.
One further wrinkle: there are occasional interruptions in which a sad-faced Russian woman is shown conferring with a Kremlin military official. Are they controlling what’s happening, and if so, how and why? The hints doled out over the course of the movie—not only in those Russian interludes but in excerpts of Silva being interviewed post factum by some shadowy government types—finish in a big reveal that aims for the sort of shock “The Usual Suspects” achieved, but instead comes off as contrived as the ridiculous “Martha” moment between Clark Kent and Bruce Wayne in “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.”
But that’s only the final insult in “Mile 22,” which comes off as a largely incoherent jumble of empty verbiage and over-the-top action, marked by Berg’s attempt to ratchet up his already hyperactive visual approach with hand-held cinematography (by Jacques Jouffret) that exceeds even his previous films in jerkiness, and is further exacerbated by the frenetic cutting of Colby Parker Jr. and Melissa Lawson Chung, which chops the violent sequences into tiny bits that make it virtually impossible to tell what’s going on.
That approach is most detrimental to Uwais, whose prowess in executing stunts was exhibited in the “Raid” movies and “Headshot.” Here he has a couple of drawn-out fight scenes, but Berg has the camera move so furiously and the editors shape the footage so chaotically that whatever choreography was involved turns into a shambles. The problem with Wahlberg is different: he’s saddled with the responsibility of barking out the steady stream of insults, goofy geopolitical commentary and bits of pseudo-profound philosophy that Silva spouts like a berserk motormouth who never shuts up, except occasionally to snap the rubber band on his wrist—a quirk that quickly becomes as irritating to us as it must be to his colleagues, since Berg has the snaps recorded at the volume of bullet shots. Cohan is also directed to scream a lot, which adds to the decibel level, and she too has a big fight scene that’s clumsily edited. Given all the hubbub, it’s a relief to cut away periodically to Malkovich, who responds to every glitch in an operation by asking, “Where did that come from?”—which not only makes for a nice, quiet respite but mirrors what a viewer might be inquiring as some new twist or obstacle arises out of nowhere.
In “Mile 22” Berg has taken the hyperventiling style he’s honed in his films with Wahlberg to what appears to be its logical extreme. Still, the movie ends with a suggestion that a sequel might be in the offing. It boggles the mind to think that the director might try to push his approach even further.