How was your latest drive to the airport? Hopefully a lot less complicated and violent than the one Mark Wahlberg undertakes in his latest outing with frequent collaborator Peter Berg in “Mile 22.” Working from a wordy, wham-bam script by debut screenwriter and spy novelist Lea Carpenter (story co-written by Graham Roland), director Berg and star Wahlberg tackle the story of a special ops team tasked with transporting a high-value source from the depths of the fictional Indocarr City in Southeast Asia onto a military plane bound for the United States, where he'll claim asylum.
The Berg-Wahlberg canon, which includes “Lone Survivor,” “Deepwater Horizon” and “Patriot's Day,” is concerned with heroism, particularly of the “based on a true story” kind. This is their first film together that's not based on a real-life tale of ordinary men doing extraordinary things, and it feels like they've been raring to cut loose. Rather than meticulous, documentary-style re-creations of true events, the pair are free to run roughshod over Carpenter's densely packed script.
The Berg-Wahlberg films are stories about systems — systems that work and systems that fail, that tango between protocol and improvisation. There's a systemic approach to the filmmaking, with constant format-swapping from handheld to surveillance video to drone footage. That's all held together with a star persona the audience can hang onto, and Berg just lets Wahlberg do Wahlberg. “Mile 22” even features an inexplicable intertextual joke that has everything to do with the actor’s rap persona Marky Mark and nothing to do with his character, Jimmy Silva.
Released from the respectful restraints of nonfiction, Berg goes completely cinematically hog-wild, and it doesn't exactly work. The film is a riot of nearly incomprehensible editing, a violent melee of intertwining scenes, shots, characters, formats and timelines, straining the limits of coherence and cogency. Just keep reminding yourself: They're going to the airport.
The package they're transporting is Li Noor (Iko Uwais), a source who claims to have information about a stash of misplaced “fear powder,” a radioactive nuclear bioweapon that will have the effect of “Hiroshima PLUS Nagasaki,” which Silva helpfully screams into the face of a hacker attempting to decode the self-destructing hard drive with the powder's locations. Noor promises the code to the drive upon delivery to the plane.
You don't cast Uwais, the star of “The Raid,” and a master of the brutal Indonesian fighting style silat, without letting him run amok on bad guys. As a performer and fight choreographer, Uwais delivers with some extremely athletic and imaginative kills, mostly performed while handcuffed. It's also far and away Uwais' best acting performance in a film, and he almost makes “Mile 22” worth it.
Perhaps that's because Uwais is an oasis of calm in the midst of the complete mayhem that is “Mile 22.” Silva, the hot-headed career special ops man, is characterized as highly gifted, with a tragic past. His signature technique appears to be talking people into submission. Silva commits war crimes of words in the form of sarcastic, fast-paced monologues about everything from Lincoln to Warren Buffett. Fortunately, the other team members consistently point out his unhinged verbosity, even while dealing with their own chaos — primarily a nasty custody battle Alice (Lauren Cohan) is attempting to mediate via satellite phone in the middle of a dangerous mission.
It's clear Carpenter, whose father had a military background (she's also a Du Pont ), knows her details, and the script is jam-packed with cynical nuggets about traditional governments, of secretive warfare and existential musings on the elusive nature of heroism. But Berg refuses to give the lines room to breathe, to fully land; instead he pummels the audience with them. “Mile 22” is an interesting anomaly in the Berg-Wahlberg exploration of heroism, exploring the darker, shadow side of the archetype. “A killer who looks like a hero, that's the real weapon of mass destruction,” Silva intones, in the one statement that comes through loud and clear.
Rating: R, for strong violence and language throughout.
Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes
Playing: Starts Aug. 17 in general release