What follows is an extended version of a review I originally wrote for Punch Drunk Movies. Music-obsessive that I am, I call these longer versions my 12-inch mix.
Fast paced and action packed, “Mile 22” should be a slam-bang B-movie. But between its incomprehensible action and incomplete plot, it feels more like a rushed pilot to a tv show.
Mark Wahlberg stars as James Silva, a CIA operative with hints of mental problems who leads the ground-portion of a two-pronged, elite paramilitary organization called Overwatch. John Malkovich’s Bishop (and his ludicrous hairpiece) head the tech-portion of the team watching over the ground force from an unknown location (think eye-in-the-sky satellite imagery and drones). The details of how this team works in unison, marrying ground-combat with computer know-how, are some of the film’s best bits.
Most of the action takes place in the fictional Indocarr City. The movie never makes the country clear, probably for fear of alienating potential foreign markets, only labeling the setting as Southeast Asia via superimposed text. This becomes especially funny when the characters keep referring to “this country” and we have no idea what country they’re supposed to be in (the movie was shot in Bogota, Colombia and Atlanta, Georgia (!), or in this movie’s parlance, Bogota, South America and Atlanta, North America).
Silva and his team, out of which only Alice Kerr (Lauren Cohen) gets to have any character traits, though mostly clichés–she’s divorced, married to her job, wants to see her child, can’t–are working in the city’s American embassy when a local special forces operative, and Alice’s intelligence source, Li Noor (Iko Uwais), charges its gates brandishing a mysterious hard disk.
The disk holds the locations of Caesium-137, a radioactive powder that can be weaponized to detrimental effect, stockpiled throughout the country by Li’s government. The disk is encrypted and will destroy itself in eight hours without a password, which Li will give only after he’s granted safe passage out of the country…wherever that may be.
His claims are bolstered by an assassination attempt in the embassy, leading to a massive brawl in a security camera riddled medical lab that somehow isn’t noticed or stopped until Li violently dispatches both of his attackers.
With Iko Uwais having made a name for himself as a martial artist in bone-crunching masterpieces like the two “Raid” films, you would expect this fight sequence to have some kick to it. It doesn’t. The film’s director, Peter Berg (“Lone Survivor”), presents the action so incomprehensibly that it becomes a blur of motion as feet kick, hands punch and glass brakes. What the performers were doing with those punching hands and kicking feet and how all that glass came to break is sadly known only to the film’s editor who saw the footage before cutting it down to an indecipherable mess.
Believing Li’s story after the attack, Silva’s Overwatch team is activated, and they, under the watchful eye of Bishop (his hair) and his tech-heads, attempt to transport Li to an airstrip 22 miles from the embassy as the country’s government sends wave after wave of trained assassins after them, resulting in a non-stop action fest in the film’s backend.
Which would be great if it hadn’t all been shot like that earlier fight scene. Shootouts, explosions ensue, but the geography of where the characters are in relation to each other is never clear. Nothing in these sequences is clear. By the end, they’re less action sequences and more suggestions of action sequences.
This frenzied action fizzles out with a gag of a final confrontation, and culminates in a plot twist that’s supposed to be jaw-dropping and shocking, but has about the same impact as a flatulent mouse.
The movie hints at some interesting ideas outside of the action. Wahlberg’s Silva has an unclear mental affliction that manifests in motor-mouthed condescension and signified visually by a rubber band he wears around his wrist, snapping it constantly, the pain keeping him calm (which becomes an overused visual crutch of his affliction. If you’d take a shot every time the film smash-cuts to his band snapping, you’d be drunk in five minutes, and dead from alcohol poisoning by the end credits). Nominally, an action hero working through and thriving despite (because of?) a mental issue would be unique and interesting for an action picture such as this. But rather than separating his character from a typical alpha hero, here it’s just an excuse for why he’s such an alpha, an explanation for why he’s always in everyone’s face.
Something about the movie just rubbed me the wrong way. It took me a while to figure it out, but there’s just something disturbing about how “Mile 22” tries to play both sides of the table. As this is a Peter Berg movie, I expect his typical celebration of American military might and the cool toys we have. And, you know, fine, the toys are cool, but then the film tries to sell that fetishization to foreign markets. That’s why we have that ludicrously vague Indocarr City setting and a ridiculous last minute rug-pull of an ending that (spoiler) unconvincingly turns the tables on the protagonists (end spoiler). It’s bad enough making a movie mostly about Americans “kicking ass,” gunning down foreigners in their own country, but to then turn around and try to make that palatable to a foreign market by saying, “oh, it’s fine because it’s not you foreigners being gunned down”? That’s kinda disgusting. If you’re propaganda, fine, I guess. But don’t try to make it palatable to another audience just so you can make a quick buck.
By the end, the movie just feels incomplete. When everything is deciphered, the movie reveals itself to be nothing more than a preamble, issue 0 of a new action franchise. Plot threads dangle as if this were the end of an episode; tune in next week for the conclusion.
When the screen faded to black, I began to hear “Is that all there is?” in the back of mind. Yeah, Peggy Lee, that’s all there is. And it isn’t much.