It’s no secret that director Peter Berg likes to make his signature, explosion-rich, action movies with his favourite actor, Mark Wahlberg but, so far, that relationship has been less than financially fruitful. While their first collaborative effort, LONE SURVIVOR, was a box office hit, their second and third efforts, DEEPWATER HORIZON and PATRIOTS DAY, both failed to breakeven. It’s still early days for their latest film, MILE 22, but it looks like the trend is still heading in a downward direction.
In MILE 22, Wahlberg plays James Silva, the leader of an American black ops strike team. The story opens with the team locating a cache of cesium-139 in a Russian FSB safe house in suburban USA before it gets turned into dirty bombs. Their mission isn’t a complete success however, as not all the cesium is recovered. Fast forward nearly 18 months and Silva and his Number 2, Alice Kerr (Lauren Cohan, TV’s THE WALKING DEAD; THE BOY), are at the American Embassy in that well known city of Indocarr in the country of Southeast Asia. (Yes, you read that right. Were the screenwriters even trying and what’s the deal with the double “r”?) As luck and bad scriptwriting would have it, Kerr’s asset, Southeast Asian Special Forces officer Li Noor (Iko Uwais, THE RAID 2) surrenders at the embassy while they’re there and he offers the team an encrypted disc containing information on the still-missing cesium in exchange for safe passage and political asylum to the US. At first, Silva is skeptical of Li Noor’s motives but when two assassins from Southeast Asia’s secret service try to kill Li Noor while inside the embassy, Silva realises that Li Noor is much more than just a disgruntled low-level cop, as that country’s Foreign Minister would like to have him believe. Silva and his supervisor, James Bishop (John Malkovich, DEEPWATER HORIZON), make the decision to trust Li Noor but the quiet foreigner won’t reveal the disc’s time-sensitive password until he’s safely on board a plane headed to the US. Thus begins the team’s 22-mile journey from the embassy to the airfield, dodging bullets and bombs the whole way.
As I was watching this film, I was thinking about why it doesn’t work. On the surface, the story is not bad, though the near real-time concept of a bunch of good guys trying to shoot their way through wave after wave of bad guys on their way to whatever freedom awaits them is nothing new. Where this film fails first is with Berg who needs to learn that less is often more. Here, the director has fallen in love with quick cuts and shaky camerawork to try to mask was is essentially poor stunt choreography. We’ve seen how talented Uwais is when he’s in combat mode in his other movies, and we know that good choreography can make for an exciting film (think JOHN WICK and ATOMIC BLONDE), so it’s strange that Berg chose to over-edit this film. In Uwais’ two fight scenes, Berg should have pulled the camera back and filmed the action in one or two takes. The film’s second problem is the writing of the characters, which is forehead-smackingly bad. We’re told over the film’s opening credits that Silva was somewhat of child savant with anger issues. A few times during the course of the story, his colleagues remind us how intelligent he is but we don’t see any evidence of it. To us and to some of his more cynical colleagues, he’s just a fast-talking a-hole with an attitude. His gimmick is a thick yellow rubber band worn around his wrist that he regularly snaps to inflict some brief amount of pain on himself. By the fourth snap, we’re bored. Cohan’s character doesn’t fare much better as we watch her deal with her ex-husband (also Berg, in a signature cameo) for a good ten minutes. When a film is 94 minutes long, you don’t spend ten percent of that dealing with a needless subplot that has no bearing on the film’s main story. Finally there’s WWE champion Ronda Rousey, who plays one of Silva’s team members. The poor thing is completely wasted here as she’s never able to take anyone down, or if she is, it’s lost because of the choppy editing.
The second writing problem relates to how many surveillance cameras Indocarr apparently has, from inside the city’s upscale coffee shops to the corridors of its most dilapidated tenements. Even London, which is one of the most surveilled cities in the world, doesn’t have this many cameras and Indocarr is clearly in a country that isn’t as wealthy as the UK is. Sorry, Peter. I just didn’t buy it.
There’s a reason why there’s the saying that less is more. Berg and Wahlberg’s next project, WONDERLAND, which is a film adaptation of the ’80s television series SPENSER: FOR HIRE, is due out next year. If the pair has any chance of turning their fortunes around, they’d better learn that axiom quickly.
A sequel to MILE 22 is on the development books and, certainly, this film’s ending leaves the story open to the possibility. The audience has spoken though, and it’s now unlikely to happen.
Watch the review recorded on Facebook Live in RTHK Radio 4’s studio on Thursday, August 23rd at 8:30 am HK time!
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