John Silva (Mark Wahlberg) is intense. How intense, you ask? This C.I.A. operative, the leader of an eliter-than-elite unit known as “Ground Branch,” is the sort of gentleman who does “the world’s hardest puzzles” (1,000 pieces, all plain white) to unwind. He snaps a rubber band on his wrist so he can center himself. Every look is a hairy-eyeball stare. If he’s smiling at you? You’re so fucked. His preferred placement is behind the scope of a large assault rifle or millimeters away from your face. As an opening-credits montage informs viewers of Mile 22, the action movie that marks (pun unintended) the fourth collaboration between Wahlberg and director Peter Berg, Silva was a genius child, an orphan, a violent kid and the perfect recruit for a government black-ops team. His fellow commandos will tell you that the only things he loves are “actionable intelligence … and pain.”
But while he’s handy with his fists and firearms, his real weapons of choice are words. You know the stoic, strong-but-silent Clint Eastwood type? That’s not this guy. He will talk you to death. Actually, talk is too mild a verb. Silva rails. He rants. He speaks in indigestible grafs. He spits out beaucoup verbiage with an Aaron-Sorkin-on-meth velocity. He will chew your ear off nonstop about everything from Abraham Lincoln speeches to Nobel-prize–winning authors, from past foreign policy mishaps to how you’re not doing your job, yes you, get it together, lives depend on it! You wonder if the English language has produced enough words to supply his endless stream of spewed bile. You worry that he will pass out from never taking a breath. (Also, in the movie’s single moment of meta-irony, a character literally tells Silva to “say hi to your mother for me.” God-level trolling.)
So when a local cop (The Raid‘s Iko Uwais) comes into the Malayasian embassy where Silva and his team are headquartered and presents them with an encrypted hard drive — one that will lead them to radioactive powder that’s more powerful “than Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined!” — our hero wants the whistleblower to spill the beans. Not yet, the man says. Get him to America, then he tells them everything. There are, of course, some catches. For example, they have to personally escort him to the transport, which is [checks notes] 22 miles away. And there may be some government no-goodniks who’ve hired an army of motorcycle-riding thugs and mercenaries to ensure that this asset doesn’t make it out of the country alive.
On paper, this sounds fantastic: Get the guys who made Lone Survivor, pair them with the Indonesian martial artist/fight choreographer who’s one of the most exciting new action stars working today, pepper the supporting cast with badass folks like Ronda Rousey and The Walking Dead‘s Lauren Cohan, give John Malkovich a bad crewcut plus the excuse to yell a lot and then throw it all into a modern-day espionage variation of the Clint-cinema classic The Gauntlet. Indeed, Mile 22 works best when it settles down — we’re using the phrase very loosely here — and focuses on being a sort of special-ops procedural that deploys most of those elements wisely. The opening sequence involving a suburban residence/Russian spy safehouse pings between a shot-calling team known as “Overwatch” tracking agents’ locations and monitoring vital signs, some decoys at the front door, a heavily armed secondary team going in through the backdoor and drone-porn surveillance footage of the whole shebang taken from above. It ends, as all things like this must, with an explosion. It’s exciting, well-played, Michael Mann-handling type stuff. You assume this will be the rule here. It’s most definitely the exception.
Instead, what we get over the next 90 minutes is InfoWars: The Movie, a motormouthed mess that finds Wahlberg indulging in endless paranoid jags in between needlessly complicated plot loop-the-loops. (At one point, Malkovich is listening to Silva’s blather and screams “Stop monologuing, you bipolar fuck!” — which means that if he’s not the actual hero of this movie, he’s at least the audience’s surrogate.) There’s the nagging feeling that both screenwriter Lea Carpenter and the actor think that the character’s talk-radio banter and numerous tics somehow make him more compelling or layered, instead of just an exhausting and obnoxious tough guy. A similar sense of WTF-ness bleeds into the choices being made behind the camera as well: Does Berg believe that, by simply throwing a lot of chaos onscreen, he can make up for a distinct lack of coherence? Did he genuinely think that just shaking the camera and cutting everything into micro-sized bits — the average shot length is somewhere between 1.5 and 1.75 seconds long — would make everything somehow more urgent instead of merely jittery? Why hire a legendary MMA fighter and then not give that person any fight scenes? Why go to the trouble of giving Uwais several fight scenes and then editing them so that you can barely see the star inflict highly choreographed damage?
(What you do catch of the actor’s battle with two thugs in a doctor’s office, by the way, is a genuine rush. You wish you could just watch long, largely unbroken sequences of that for an hour and a half. In fact, you can: Ignore this film and go check out both of The Raid movies. Do it. Go. Now.)
Berg’s stealth specialty as a director has always been his observational eye — even when he’s in he-man mode, there are few filmmakers who have such a knack for capturing an America you see out your car window in small towns and on strip-mall–dotted interstates, or within working-class kitchens and wage-class get-togethers. There’s zero condescension in his everyday U.S.A. scenes; check out his big-screen Friday Night Lights (2004) and the first thirds of his real-life tragidramas Deepwater Horizon and Patriots Day (2016). But he’s also got a major hard-on for brawn, especially military brawn, which sometimes pushes him into some questionable jingoistic territory. Stumping for American exceptionalism and freedom-isn’t-free platitude-speak is one thing — chest-beaters gonna chest-beat — but you can feel Berg working both himself and the film into a froth that mirrors his protagonist’s manic paranoid to an alarming degree. It’s a flailing conspiracy thriller that you’d swear was made by a card-carrying conspiracy theorist, one who ladles on the ballistics and a few twists but forgets to add actual thrills. Mile 22 can give you chase scenes and bullet-ridden shoot-outs and evil Russians and lengthy diatribes. It can give you something approximating action. What it can’t give you is a watchable action movie. That’s where it truly fails to go the distance.