If you squint and tilt your head just right, you can almost see how one might think that director Peter Berg is the thinking man’s Michael Bay. Granted, the prism through which you must view a film within the Bergian oeuvre to see this is but a sliver, and that sliver has to catch the light just so, but it makes a kind of sense. Both directors work within the same wheelhouse of wanton mindlessness, though I guess the main difference would be that Bay doesn’t hide that fact.
Berg, however, seems determined to be seen as a kind of visionary. His work is always infused with needless flavor that suggests a desire for elevation, even if the parts don’t quite live up to the whole of his vision. Like steak sauce on a filet, or bacon wrapped anything. I get what you’re going for, but you’ve just overpowered your point. Your blind desire for Something More has caused you to turn something that would’ve been fine on its own into something less than it could have been.
This is the most baffling part of watching Mile 22, a movie that is superficially fine but frustrating for what it could have been. In Bergian fashion, a solid premise and a delightfully unhinged Mark Wahlberg performance is lost beneath a series of ill-advised accoutrements that hide the raw flavor of his meat. The whole has become less than its parts.
Wahlberg stars as James Silva, leader of a covert team of intelligence operatives searching for a batch of missing cesium from their base, located in the American embassy in an unnamed country. Struggling under the weight of the destruction the cesium might cause if/when it falls into the wrong hands, their frustrated efforts are helped when a defecting officer (Iko Uwais) turns himself in and offers to reveal the location of the missing cesium if, and only if, he is provided asylum by the US government. Now, Wahlberg and his team must make a treacherous 22 mile journey to an airstrip as the corrupt officials of the country stop at nothing to prevent the defection.
Fans of modern martial arts cinema will recognize Uwais as the star of The Raid and The Raid 2; he also serves as the perfect example of how Berg gets in his own way. Anyone who has seen The Raids knows that Uwais is an amazing martial arts performer; a director need do little but set up a camera and let fists fly. Not Berg, though. In an ill-conceived effort to put His Stamp on the project, he falls back on the tried and true method of hackery by hiding his action behind quick cuts and flash.
This technique is a workable one if you’re having someone like, say, Matt Damon pretend like he’s some sort of international badass. Using the quick cuts, you can mask the choreography to make it seem as though someone with little or no martial arts training sort of seems like they know what they’re doing. It’s like autotune. It’s annoying, but sure.
Problem is, you don’t need to autotune Sinatra, and Uwais can hit as hard as Ol’ Blue Eyes could croon. Berg ignores this for the illusion of style, and ruins more than a couple of scenes that might’ve been jaw droppingly amazing. In his quest to evoke hyper kinetic frenzy, Berg fumbles his intent. And it’s not just in the martial arts sequences.
Every action scene is similarly ruined by Berg’s ham-fisted attempts at style that never allow the audience to focus their attention on anything in particular. Scenes that might have be fraught with tension and unease instead feel slapdash and erratic. The end effect grinds whatever substance it might have had to a fine powder that gets lost beneath the array.
As stated earlier, there is something magnetic about Wahlberg’s decisions as an actor here. Silva is meant to be almost too smart, so smart he’s crazy—which we know because, well, they won’t shut up about it—and Wahlberg translates this to a kind of awe-inspiring unhinged that’s almost reminiscent of Nic Cage at his most desperate to pay off tax debt. It’s fun to watch, kind of, and at just over 90 minutes it doesn’t exactly have time to wear out its welcome, even if it does start to grind a bit.
If you’re just looking to watch explosions go boom or brains go splat, I guess Mile 22 gets the job done. Still, it’s hard to watch once you see how much better it might have been. Not every movie needs to put substance over style, admittedly, but Berg’s grasp of style is tenuous. Mile 22 is an exercise in bad decisions that hide a decent movie that’s desperate to be unleashed. Sometimes less is more, even for the most mindless of cinematic indulgences. With this film being the first of a planned trilogy, perhaps the second course will be more restrained.
Mile 22 is now playing in theaters everywhere.