Russian Plots and High Explosives Come Together for ‘Mile 22’

Actor turned director Peter Berg and Mark Wahlberg are the supreme patriot duo in modern movies. “Mile 22” is their latest opus about men and women in combat, fighting off the scourge of foreign threats with lots of ammo and explosions so vivid, you can practically smell the petrol. The pair have gained renown for their slew of fact-based thrillers including “Lone Survivor,” about soldiers lost in Afghanistan, “Patriots Day,” about the Boston Marathon bombing, and “Deepwater Horizon,” a visceral re-creation of a 2010 oil rig explosion. “Mile 22” is their attempt at pure fiction, while still saluting a particular section of U.S. government, in this case the CIA. Expertly shot, full of pounding violence, all it’s really missing is a better, more fleshed out story.

The story opens in a suburban, wooded part of the United States where snappy-talking CIA senior officer James Silva (Wahlberg), leads a raid with fellow team members Alice Kerr (Lauren Cohan), Sam Snow (Ronda Rousey) and William “Dougie” Douglas III (Carlo Alban). The raid takes down a group of Russian operatives who were planning some sort of attack. When the raid goes sour and a violent shoot out ensues, Silva kills one of the Russians, a 20-year-old operative. Two years later Silva and his team, code-named Overwatch, are based in a fictional Southeast Asian country named Indocarr. Supervising them is Overwatch head honcho Bishop (John Malkovich). The team is trying to track down a missing cache of radioactive powder discs which can result in the making of dirty bombs. Into the embassy strolls Li Noor (Iko Uwais), an Indocarr Special Forces officer who is also a trusted source for the U.S. Embassy. Noor reveals that he has a hard drive with the locations of the radioactive material, but he will only unlock it once he is flown to safety. The Indocarr government demands Noor be handed over to them, but of course Uncle Sam says no. After two assassins posing as doctors try to kill Noor, it is decided to immediately transport him to a waiting plane. But the route to the airport is 22 miles long. Silva and his team will try to get Noor to the plane through those 22 miles while a Russian spy plane flies high above, carrying officials seeking to extract a bloody revenge for Silva’s killing of their operative.

It is perfectly accurate to label “Mile 22” as an action movie because that is pretty much all it is. Berg has established himself as a skilled director of well-crafted violence, capturing both the high-tech aspects of modern-day combat and simply put, very good explosions. In this movie his skill is on display, but at the service of an empty story. Berg opens the movie interestingly enough, with Wahlberg delivering rapid-fire monologues about espionage and terrorism in the modern world, all the while snapping a wrist band as a form of coping with his fast brain. His Silva is a fascinating creation, reportedly inspired by the strange mannerisms of Steve Bannon. But little exposition is given for Silva as a character, except for a few moments hinting at him being some kind of child prodigy, he is soon reduced to another Berg/Wahlberg tough guy, barking orders and intimidating enemies. Lauren Cohan’s Alice Kerr is slightly more fascinating, as her character copes with a bad divorce and custody battle while trying to focus on the mission at hand. There are moments of strong tension as she tries to deal with a bullish ex-husband while Silva keeps barking at her to get going. But this storyline never goes anywhere and she is soon doing her expected role of kicking butt.

The feeling you get from Berg’s screenplay is that he just wanted to craft something around CIA covert operations as a theme, but is using the idea as a mere excuse to then show his characters running around the streets of Indocarr blowing up vehicles, shooting down adversaries and breaking bones. If you seek pure adrenaline without substance you’ve come to the right movie. Indonesian martial arts star Iko Uwais, known for the two “The Raid” movies, makes his American feature debut here. He steals the show with moments of exhilarating choreography. His best scene is an infirmary battle where he takes down two infiltrators with one arm chained to a hospital bed. Eventually he will also grind a bad guy’s neck over the broken glass of a crashed car door. The whole heart of the movie is the drive to the airport, so credit should be given to Berg for delivering what he promises. The drive turns into a brutal, extended combat scene where everything and everyone becomes a target. Vehicles are demolished, characters are taken down by gunfire, disemboweled by grenades or choose heroic suicides. The editing is a tutorial in how fast you can splice and dice footage into a rambling montage of sound and fury.

What is missing here is what kept Berg’s previous movies together, namely a clear story. Maybe because the last three were based on true events, it was easier to form a cohesive narrative. Like “Lone Survivor” and “Patriots Day,” there is an obvious admiration for a testosterone-fueled vision of American institutions, but the characters feel half-formed. Reportedly this is the first of a franchise, but the best first chapters of most film series tend to be fully formed (in case there is no sequel). For example through out the movie Berg keeps cutting to a Russian spy plane where an unnamed official, Vera (Natasha Goubskaya), gets updates on what’s going on in Indocarr. We get the impression the killed Russian from the opening scenes was her son. But so little dialogue is provided, with no context given on the whys or motives that even Robert Mueller would walk away befuddled. The villains are below cardboard cutouts, meant to just sit there with barely any dialogue, just as figurines implying at some bigger conspiracy.

At least “Mile 22” can’t say the title doesn’t fit. This movie is truly about just those 22 miles Wahlberg and his team have to traverse. What are the explosives for, who are the Russians in the spy plane? These are questions we apparently have to wait for the sequel to find out. For now, if you just seek Wahlberg cocking a gun as only he knows how, this might deliver. But how many rounds can you keep firing into a plot hole?

Mile 22” releases Aug. 17 in theaters nationwide.