“Evil exists, and the great game continues.” This is the mantra of James Silva (Mark Wahlberg), the grizzled, quip-happy leader of Ghost Branch, a secret paramilitary unit of the CIA that specializes in anti-terror operations. They’re gruff, angry badasses who kick ass in the name of the good ol’ US of A, more than happy to shout at ‘computer nerds’ and no-scope all kinds of sick headshots to get the job done. Their work is so secretive that before every mission they cut off all legal connections to their government so they can do the dirty work that diplomats are too lily-livered to do.
These are the protagonists of Mile 22, the latest feature-length military recruitment video from Peter Berg (Battleship). It’s a tepid, frenetic actioner seemingly engineered for late-August stragglers who crave a playthrough of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, but can’t find a good Let’s Play. While this is the fourth director/star collaboration between Berg and Wahlberg (after Lone Survivor, Patriot’s Day, and Deepwater Horizon), it might well be their most incoherent. While their collaborations tend to aim higher for a kind of hyper-masculine bro-etry about freedom and courage, Mile 22 aims for breezy schlock.
It’s easy to get lost in the plot of Mile 22’s endless, helter-skelter editing and refusal to explain what’s really going on, but here are the broad strokes: after finding out that Russian operatives are in possession of some deadly cesium-137, Ghost Branch are tasked with handling the extraction of Indonesian whistleblower – and flip-kicking supercop – Li Noor (The Raid’s Iko Uwais) from the country. Li has a secret, encrypted drive with the location of the cesium, but the drive will disintegrate in eight hours, and he won’t give up the password until he’s on a plane out of the country. Unfortunately, during their 22-mile trip from the embassy to the plane, Ghost Branch’s convoy is sieged by Indonesian hit squads, forcing the team (including The Walking Dead’s Lauren Cohan and WWE’s Ronda Rousey) to keep Li alive long enough to complete the deal.
If that sounds like a fun, John Carpenter-esque idea for a high-concept action thriller, think again – the convoy business doesn’t even start until an hour into Mile 22’s 90 minutes, giving audiences few setpieces to enjoy Berg’s ostensible command of action. Unfortunately, the action is dim, frenetic, and disappointingly edited, a flurry of poorly-lit headshots with little sense of geography. It’s doubly shameful when Berg wastes his greatest action asset in Uwais, their prisoner-turned-reluctant ally. The action star gets a few moments for his brutal, beautiful martial arts style to shine, but they’re shot and cut as recklessly as the repetitive gunfights. The same goes for Rousey; she’s not much of an on-camera performer, but the movie makes precious little use of her commanding physical presence, paradoxically giving Cohan’s character the heavier lifting in the action beats (although she handles it admirably enough).
Of course, all of this is in service to a preposterous, convoluted airport thriller filled with jaw-dropping dialogue and painfully thin characters. As Ghost Branch’s leader, who the film’s opening title sequence tells us is a genius-level orphan with anger issues, Silva is a motor-mouthed jackass, Wahlberg filling every millisecond of his screen time with more whiny quips than his character from The Other Guys. Whether he’s telling off teammates for wasting time or mouthing off during his taped deposition during the film’s ill-advised framing device, Wahlberg’s tough guy philosophizing is as obnoxious as the Livestrong bracelet he snaps against his wrist as an authorly tic. At one point, a character tells him to “stop monologuing, you bipolar fuck!”; by the time the film reaches its baffling final minutes, with Silva smarmily explaining everything we missed, it’s hard not to relate to that impulse.
They’re led through their objectives by John Malkovich’s ‘overwatch’ Bishop, a man who comes to work wearing a crisp black suit and black Converse sneakers. Almost as baffling as Malkovich’s J. Jonah Jameson wig are his workplace decorations: bobbleheads of several U.S. Presidents placed in a row along his team’s computer. (Yes, there is a lingering shot of Trump’s bobblehead, MAGA hat and all, portentously stationed next to Obama’s).
If you squint hard enough, you can find some perverse entertainment in Mile 22’s patently absurd world. Every aspect of the film seems to be torn right from Tom Clancy’s sweat-soaked wet dreams, a world of cool dirty-ops dudes (and a couple kick-ass chicks) packed with tactical gear and clearing hallways and nobly sacrificing themselves onto grenades. Carpenter’s script is chock-full of shadowy men in rooms staring each other down, ominous villains in flying surveillance jets staring down monitors, and female hackers chatting self-seriously about how certain codes had to be “made by a woman” because they understand anonymity better.
It also has some of the weirdest onscreen product placement of recent vintage – Cohan’s right-hand woman Alice makes copious use of “Our Family Wizard”, apparently a real app designed to facilitate communication between divorced parents (it filters out swears and conflict words, a real obstacle for Alice’s hair-trigger temper). That, along with the strategic placement of certain marketable East Asian stars (Uwais, Korean singer CL), further cements Mile 22’s shamelessness as a global product to be sold.
A perversely fascinating mess from start to finish, Mile 22 is Berg’s most baffling attempt yet to make art out of the most virulent post-9/11 fears about terrorism and international espionage. While moments of visceral fun can be gleaned from the take-no-prisoners brutality of the action, and some of the more baffling moments in the script, make no mistake – there’s little here that will appeal to anyone beyond military fetishists who love buying tactical flashlights online.