Far and away the worst summer movie of 2018 (at least of the ones that weren’t directed by Dinesh D’Souza, and don’t feature the Slender Man), “Mile 22” represents a bold new low for modern Hollywood’s most patriotic duo, as Peter Berg and Mark Wahlberg’s dick-swinging brand of American exceptionalism is starting to feel more than a little forced in these unexceptional times.
While “Lone Survivor” was basically a recruitment film, “Patriot’s Day” was an all-too-engaging dramatization of the Boston Bombing, and “Deepwater Horizon” was a scorching pyrotechnics display that paled next to Margaret Brown’s documentary about the same disaster, the very fictional “Mile 22” is almost bad enough to make you wish Berg hadn’t run out of terrible events that could be turned into popcorn entertainment. Without a bloody foundation of truth to ground their swagger in reality or give it some kind of moral purpose, these two certified alpha males are completely lost; it’s like they were given all the various bits you need to assemble a watchable action movie, but went into production without any idea of how those pieces might fit together.
“Mile 22” is an artless and incoherent wannabe blockbuster that follows a CIA paramilitary caravan as they try to escort a high-level informant out of a collapsing Southeast Asian country. The film does such a poor job of explaining its plot that — at the 30-minute mark — John Malkovich has to stop the movie in its tracks and literally reiterate everything that’s happened so far. At its essence, “Mile 22” is part “Sicario”, part “The Raid”, and all deeply terrible. Some nuclear cesium has been stolen in the fictional country of generic, off-brand Indonesia (played by the city of Bogotá), and only Li Noor (Iko Uwais) knows where it went. But he wants asylum in the United States, so it’s up to paramilitary all-star John Silva (Wahlberg) and the rest of his unit to escort him the 22 miles to the airport before a local gang kills him for being a traitor.
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Also, some Russians are up to no good on an evil spy plane, a CIA agent talks to her monstrous ex-husband (Peter Berg!) over a child-support app that shuts down when people swear on it, and at one point Ronda Rousey has to read Edvard Munch’s Wikipedia page, but you don’t really need to worry about any of that. And you definitely don’t need to pay any attention to Silva’s computer team, who do almost nothing. One of them chuckles when a drone missile obliterates a villain, and there’s something about the military superiority of it all that makes the whole thing feel kinda sociopathic.
In the spirit of fairness, it’s worth noting that “Mile 22” has a couple of decent surprises up its sleeve. One of them is saved for the very end, and most people will probably see it coming. The other is busted out right at the start, and most people probably won’t even notice: The movie opens with an elite CIA unit preparing to swarm a Russian safe house somewhere in the heart of suburbia, and the two undercover agents leading the operation are played by “The Walking Dead” star Lauren Cohan, and… former New York Ranger Sean Avery?
It isn’t much of a spoiler to reveal that he takes a bullet to the head before the opening credits, but he makes a strong impression (long-suffering Rangers fans know that Avery was always a better talker than a skater, so it’s great to see the guy find a second act that suits his talents).
Not into hockey? Well, maybe you’ll enjoy watching John Malkovich sport the most intense cop buzzcut since Josh Brolin’s in “Inherent Vice.” He plays a CIA surveillance operative whose codename is “mother,” which is fun because at one point a character stares Mark Wahlberg straight in the eyes and says “Say hi to your mother for me.” Anyway, he’s the guy who relays information to the people on the ground, and leads them all into a super obvious death trap. One egregiously violent and incomprehensibly edited shootout later, and Silva has a dead co-worker on his hands. “You’re making a mistake,” a bad guy says with his final breath. “I’ve made a lot of them”, Silva replies.
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And we have no trouble believing that, because the character is an insufferable moron. At no point in this godforsaken movie does Silva do anything to suggest that he’s good at his job, or to otherwise justify the constant stream of verbal abuse that Lea Carpenter’s script gives him instead of a personality. Or a compelling motivation. All he gets is a pathetic excuse for a past, the entirety of which is shoehorned into a few audio recordings during the opening credits (he was a gifted kid who grew up angry and now incessantly snaps a bracelet on his wrist to keep himself from losing his cool. The end). This is the flimsiest protagonist that Wahlberg has ever played, and we’re talking about a guy who’s starred in two “Transformers” movies.
Almost every shot in “Mile 22” ends with a handheld cutaway to Silva barking some idiocy at one of his coworkers or testifying at a hearing after everything has gone horribly wrong, and that’s a lot of cutaways, because movie’s average shot length can only be measured with one of those millisecond stopwatches they use for swimming events at the Olympics. How do you fit 22 miles of action into 90 mercifully brief minutes of screen time? Make sure that every image only lasts long enough for the human eye to perceive it as stimuli.
Admirable as it is that people are still trying to execute massive action spectacles on $35 million budgets, there are only so many shortcuts you can take before you’re just left with nonsense. There isn’t a single scene in “Mile 22” that cuts together in a coherent fashion — even the dialogue is shredded to ribbons. One indoor fight sequence is so janky that you can’t help but think that it would be more satisfying to watch the action via static CCTV. A few minutes later, Berg actually doubles back to show us security footage from the melee, confirming the worst suspicions about how self-destructive his style has become. It’s truly unfathomable that any of the people who saw the dailies for this movie ever thought they were making something that humans even have the visual capacity to enjoy.
The spectacular failure of the film’s aesthetic makes for a tremendous waste of Uwais, whose talents as a brawler surpass anything that Berg has ever had at his disposal before. As the mysterious Li Noor, the Indonesian action star is given a golden opportunity to show the whole world what he can do, and his presence here is yet another credit to a movie in which — Mark Wahlberg aside — the best person was picked for almost every major role. It’s an overdue treat to see Uwais get to indulge in his natural charisma; for all of the superhuman antics he displays in “The Raid” and its sequel, there isn’t much time for personality when you’re kicking 37,000 people to death in two hours.
And yet, “Mile 22” does everything it can to obscure Uwais’ other, more familiar skills. While the film reserves him many of its most violent moments (and they are quite violent), those staccato, almost subliminal flashes of bloodshed make it all but impossible for audiences to fully appreciate the actor’s peerless athleticism. You know that meme where Spongebob Squarepants looks all weird? That’s what “Mile 22” will feel like to anyone who’s seen “The Raid.” Or, for that matter, any action movie that’s able to fulfill the genre’s most basic obligations. One in which the secret bad guy isn’t obvious, and the obvious bad guy isn’t totally inexplicable. One in which characters have arcs, and not just a series of abrasive traits.
It all ends with an incredibly thirsty invitation for a sequel, and a summer movie this cheap is sure to earn one. But at this point, the most patriotic thing that Berg and Wahlberg could do is to walk away and refocus their attention on other disasters.
“Mile 22” opens in theaters on August 17th.