The heroes of explosive action-espionage thrillers tend to be men of few words, but Mark Wahlberg breaks the pattern in “Mile 22,” a broken-limb, flying-glass dirty-ops spectacular. He plays Jimmy Silva, a walking lethal weapon who leads a U.S. intelligence squad so elite and undercover and ultra-badass that it has severed all legal connection to the government. (That’s so its members can, you know, do what has to be done.)
Jimmy, a hard-bitten agent and assassin, never misses the chance to toss off some rapid-fire jabber about history, violence, nuclear weapons, his trio of ex-wives — you name it. If you listen to his words, he’s actually rather philosophical (for a quasi-sociopathic government killer), and the fact that he comes off as someone badgering people on an amphetamine jag isn’t necessarily a strike against him. It’s just a sign that he cares. We see a home-movie montage of his childhood — hyperactivity! violence! orphaned at the age of 11! — and the question that drives Wahlberg’s entertainingly hostile and wired performance is: Am I spewing fragments of wisdom, or am I so tightly wound that I’m halfway to crazy? The answer is a bit of both.
“Mile 22” takes its jagged attention-deficit rhythm from Wahlberg, and also from Paul Greengrass’ “Bourne” films. It’s like a degraded and darkly pulped version of them, with editing so fast it’s almost pointillistic and surveillance scenes — greatly influenced by the underrated “Jason Bourne” (2016) — that suggest there isn’t a corner of the world, or your bedroom, that the government can’t get into.
Popular on Variety
In the hair-trigger set piece that opens the movie, Jimmy and his team burst into a tranquil woodside suburban home that’s actually a Russian safe house, where they attempt to apprehend the people inside. This results in a frenzied pile-up of leaping-out-of-the-corner, blasting-through-the-walls ambushes, with much of the mayhem glimpsed through fuzzy surveillance images monitored by a computer squad overseen by Bishop, who is played — you want to say of course — by John Malkovich. These hackers can read the heartbeat and blood pressure of each team member: an efficient way to tell if they’re dead. The mission turns out to be a big botch (our heroes got bad information about who was in the house). But though we’re basically just watching a bunch of assassins kill a bunch of other people, the adrenalized cutting lends it all a frantic self-importance, as if this were “Zero Dark Thirty” directed by Sergei Eisenstein.
“Mile 22” marks the fourth collaboration between Wahlberg and the director Peter Berg. The two have made one film together that aimed high (the gripping and convulsive true-life terrorist drama “Patriots Day”). This one aims a lot lower and, more or less, hits the mark. It’s a spiky propulsive thriller, at once exciting and numbing, packed with weaponry — rocket launchers and chunky black machine guns — as well as hand-to-hand combat that’s marked by a quick-time viciousness. Berg, when he wants to be, is a surgical craftsman of chaos. Yet “Mile 22” has no weight or resonance. It’s a down-and-dirty hunk of product designed to kick off a franchise, and that, in the end, is what’s at stake: Can it catch us up in the Greater Narrative?
Jimmy’s commando team includes his veteran comrade Alice Kerr (Lauren Cohan), who in her silky way is as overwrought as he is. She’s going through a divorce, and is such a hard case that she can’t keep herself from cursing out her ex- over the phone, even though the new divorce software will shut down her communication with her young daughter for the crime of texting a single obscenity. Cohan, from “The Walking Dead,” makes her a highly functional basket case: raging, distraught, but utterly able to put that on hold when terrorists steal a shipment of Cesium 139, which can be fashioned into the street equivalent of a nuke.
A mystery agent, Li Noor (Iko Uwais), has turned himself in to the American embassy of his host country and claims to know the location of the stolen Cesium shipments. The host country is never identified, but seems like a version of South Korea. Li has stored the information on a disc, and has the code that will unlock it, but the disc is set to deconstruct in eight hours. He’ll give up the code only if Jimmy and his team escort him the 22 treacherous miles to a plane that will deliver him to the safe haven of the U.S.
The charismatic Indonesian actor Iko Uwais has appeared in films ranging from “The Raid” to “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” and he endows Li with the balletic murderous elegance of a stoic martial-arts star. When he’s attacked, in a checkup room, by two of his countrymen, the fight that ensues is a messy cutthroat knockout. But then he’s shoved into a car, where he becomes “The Package” that Jimmy and his squad must protect from teams of assassins. At this point, any espionage subtlety is out the window, which makes you grateful for a moment like Malkovich snapping at Wahlberg, “Stop monologuing, you bipolar f—k!” “Mile 22” turns into a kamikaze chase thriller, and the film’s relatively brief running time (just 94 minutes) is more than a matter of chopped-down excess. The movie unfolds like a chase in real time.
It’s a rolling orgy of grenades and micro-bombs and cars themselves used as bashing weapons. The body count is high, but what’s noteworthy is how many of those bodies belong to the good guys. In “Mile 22,” being on the right side won’t save you — the movie reflects a world in disorder, right down to its big final twist (which sets up the sequel). Yet Berg’s staging has a violent precision. At one point, Alice attacks a goon with a shard of glass, and does well enough with it, but he’s still alive, and lunges at her, and when a red hole in his forehead suddenly appears courtesy of a sniper’s rifle, the person behind me at a preview screening said “Nice!” I knew what he meant. When it comes to a movie making execution feel good, it’s all in the timing.