Pushing 50, Mark Wahlberg wants to go where Tom Cruise and the 22-year-old Mission: Impossible series have gone before: Franchise Heaven. He won’t get there, at least not with Mile 22, his fourth – and by every indication, what should be his last – collaboration with director Peter Berg (Deepwater Horizon, Patriots Day, Lone Survivor). A mid-budget, Southeast Asian-set, sub-mediocre actioner, Mile 22 tries mightily to give Wahlberg a career-reinvigorating role as James Silva, a near superheroic CIA Special Branch field agent, team leader, and all-around hard-ass with major personality defects and/or undiagnosed neurological condition (shades of Ben Affleck’s title character in The Accountant), a spandex-free Captain America wannabe for our complicated, morally and ethically grey world (or something). Except Mile 22 drops the potentially intriguing Silva into a dull, formulaic, generic run-and-chase, protect-the-asset story we’ve seen countless times done better on the big and small screen (e.g., S.W.A.T., NCIS: Los Angeles, etc.).
Berg, Wahlberg, and credited screenwriter Lea Carpenter heavily tip a late third-act reveal – or the potential for one – by framing Mile 22 around Silva’s post-action report/debriefing, an interrogation or interview that will definitely remind some moviegoers of a similar device used in Atomic Blonde last summer (itself borrowed from 1987’s No Way Out). Whether it’s used in the same way crosses over into spoiler territory, but it does have the same negative effect: Constantly interrupting action and robbing Mile 22 of much-needed forward momentum story wise. Silva’s interrogation, filled with riffs, tangents, and asides, also gives Wahlberg the opportunity to over-act (he runs away with the opportunity) as does Silva’s respect-no-boundaries verbal putdowns of anyone and everyone unlucky enough to cross his path, including Alice Kerr (Lauren Cohan, The Walking Dead) and Sam Snow (Ronda Rousey), key members of his on-the-ground team (they sign releases severing their CIA ties, IMF-style). With the exception of William Douglas III (Carlo Alban), a pony-tailed weapons and explosives expert, the other members of Silva’s team – all men – barely get any screen time, let alone dialogue.
Mile 22 falls into the “less dialogue a character gets, the more likely he or she will die” formula for action movies. Those characters make their exits with little or no emotional punch. But that’s par for the action-movie course, especially given that Mile 22 has to set aside screen time for the third (or second, depending on your point-of-view) most important character, Li Noor (Iko Uwais), a supposedly low-level cop with an encrypted hard drive crammed with information that can take down a corrupt government. Unsurprisingly, Noor’s possession of the encrypted hard drive puts a major target on his back, head, and every limb. It also gives him enough leverage to demand the CIA via Silva and his team escort him to a super-secret plane on a super-secret runway bound for the U.S. of A. And that’s where the “22” in Mile 22 comes from: It’s 22 miles from the U.S. Embassy to the makeshift airstrip. That mid-level budget, though, makes those 22 miles feel like 2. The laughably small, ill-equipped, two-car convoy falls into an ambush almost immediately, then another one (followed by a third and fourth) before ending abruptly in a rundown apartment complex.
Echoes of Iko Uwais’ collaboration with writer-director Gareth Edwards (The Raid, The Raid: Redemption) are all over the apartment complex firefight, but what should have been one of Mile 22’s major highlights turns into another wasted opportunity. It’s not just poorly lit, but also badly choreographed and even more badly edited, an unnecessary reminder of Berg’s worst tendencies as an action director. An earlier, close-quarters fight between Uwais and two government-sent assassins in a hospital room also suffers from Berg’s inability to let Uwais be Uwais, cutting and chopping Uwais’ action heroics into confusion and ultimately, incoherence. Originally, Mile 22 was envisioned as an inexpensive, co-equal vehicle for Rousey and Uwais, experienced martial artists who could handle their fight scenes minus stunt doubles, with Silva set-up the villain or antagonist. After several rewrites, Cohan more or less took over Rousey’s role and Uwais took a literal back seat to Silva (now the unquestioned lead and unambiguous hero).
Mile 22 makes another, potentially fatal mistake for a wannabe franchise starter: It fails to give Silva and Li Noor’s stories the ending they deserve (or any ending for that matter). Mile 22 commits the cardinal sin of setting up a sequel or series without telling a complete story first, without telling the kind of story that will make moviegoers demand or even want a sequel. It’s not about ending on a cliffhanger, leaving key questions unanswered, or the fates of key characters unresolved. That works in the Harry Potter, the Star Wars, and the Marvel Cinematic Universes, but not anywhere else. A standalone, first-in-a-potential series movie should deliver original, unique characters in stories so compelling, not to mention complete, that moviegoers will want to see those characters in new stories all over again.