A likeable screen presence can go a very, very long way. Many movies which would have otherwise been unremarkable or downright bad have been elevated by the presence of an actor whose very appearance on screen signals a sort of collective sigh of relief. Scarlett Johansson, Gary Oldman and Harrison Ford, to name but a few, have all repeatedly handed their names over to fairly middling projects, and in so doing made them watchable.
To that list, one might be tempted to add Mark Wahlberg, who is swiftly becoming both a reliable box office draw and a solid indicator of what kind of film audiences are in for. Okay, perhaps that’s not entirely fair. Wahlberg’s filmography is pleasingly varied; he counts Paul Thomas Anderson’s auteur masterpiece Boogie Nights in his repertoire, as well as Michael Bay’s decidedly odd passion project Pain and Gain, so he does have range and versatility.
That’s not the Marky Mark you’re in for if you go to see Mile 22, though. This movie is Wahlberg’s fourth collaboration with prolific director Peter Berg. Berg’s previous credits include superhero pastiche Hancock, sci-fi board game adaptation Battleship and action thriller The Kingdom, but the mode he’s in here is that of 2013’s Lone Survivor, all military gung-ho and flag-waving patriotic sentiment.
Mile 22 casts Wahlberg as James Silva, an American black ops agent. Along with an elite CIA task force assembled from the CIA’s Special Activities Division, Silva must escort high-priority intelligence asset Li Noor (played by The Raid’s Iko Uwais) across the titular 22 miles, where an airplane waits to take him to safety in exchange for the information he’s providing to the USA. As setups go, it’s nice and high-concept, and the movie’s taut 94-minute running time wastes no breath initiating proceedings.
Realistically, if you’re off to see Mile 22, you probably know what you’re in for, especially if you’re familiar with any of Berg and Wahlberg’s previous collaborations (Lone Survivor, Deepwater Horizon and Patriots Day). Wahlberg is a slick, accomplished action star with a lot of credits under his belt, and he lends his trademark gruff everyman quality to Mile 22 as well. There’s no believing that Wahlberg is an ordinary citizen, but Mile 22 doesn’t ask us to believe he is. This is a proud movie of make-believe and artifice; though it has pretensions to realism, with its Paul Greengrass-style shakycam editing and violence, it’s really just about watching Wahlberg and his co-stars tear it up on screen.
That’s not necessarily a problem, though. Wahlberg is reliably tough and unflinching in the central role, and many of the (slightly aggressively edited) action scenes are remarkable in their violent honesty. Iko Uwais, who showed his chops so promisingly in The Raid and its sequel, doesn’t really get that much of a chance to shine; he’s magnetic as the Indonesian intelligence agent promised asylum in exchange for information, but he rarely gets an opportunity to unsheath his claws and demonstrate the martial arts prowess which made The Raid movies such a joy to behold.
Unfortunately, the editing and cinematography in Mile 22 can’t quite keep up with Uwais and Wahlberg’s brutal ballet. A few too many scenes are lost beneath an avalanche of shaky editing and swift cutting; this movie is a bit too predisposed to rapid-fire cuts and slightly confusingly framed shots for any real sense of cohesion to set in. That said, Berg is nothing if not an efficient director, and he moves from scene to scene with barely a pause for breath. The pacing of Mile 22 might be ever-so-slightly off, but Berg works this to his favor, creating an action thriller that doesn’t let up for even one moment.
Narrative-wise, the movie fares slightly less well. Its promisingly stripped-back setup of a 22-mile stretch beset by terrorists works well for the first 45-50 minutes of the movie or so, but when the double- and triple-crossing begins, it’s difficult to keep pace with who’s working for who. The twists are serviceable when they come, and the same brisk pace is applied to the story as to the action itself; screenwriter Lea Carpenter is a novelist for her day job, so she understands narrative flow and thrust. Wahlberg and Uwais get one or two nice lines, but the script is not why anyone is here, and it shows on screen.
Mile 22 is a wild, messy and violent ride, typical of Berg and Wahlberg’s previous collaborations. It doesn’t quite have the solemn heft of Lone Survivor, nor does it have the political underpinning of Deepwater Horizon. Its action and script are a tad uneven, and Iko Uwais doesn’t get enough time to be his incredible self on screen (but then, he never does). With all that said, though, Mile 22 is still a pretty ripping good time. The movie runs 94 minutes, which is a four-star running time in our books; many, many movies out there could learn something from Berg’s editors Colby Parker Jr. and Melissa Lawson Cheung, who understand that a movie like this is much better as a taut thrill ride than a bloated character piece. While Mile 22 won’t wow you like Lone Survivor might have done, it’s still a perfectly serviceable hour and a half, and there are no moments of boredom or languor. You already know if you like this kind of movie, but if you’ve never seen anything like this before, Mile 22 is a pretty decent place to start.