Mark Wahlberg stars in MILE 22

Director Peter Berg and star Mark Wahlberg reunite for an action flick about a CIA unit that must transport an asset to safety under deadly circumstances.

Now that a Star Wars movie has flopped and the Academy has entered the popularity business, there are perhaps just two remaining certainties in Hollywood: That anything with Marvel’s name on it will make a pile of money and that any collaboration between Mark Wahlberg and director Peter Berg (there have been four now) will have a greater action-to-downtime ratio (maybe 9:1) than any other film out there. And so it is with Mile 22, another high-strung, high-pitched action drama about some tough Americans fighting for survival in dire circumstances. Commercial results look to fall in the sturdy mid-range.

Structurally, the script by first-time screenwriter Lea Carpenter, from a story by her and Graham Roland, resembles that of many video games, as it involves getting a character from point A to point B with the maximum amount of peril, obstacles and collateral damage inhibiting the journey. Aesthetically, Berg here has arguably reached the goal he’s lately been pursuing of fashioning an absolutely fat-free movie; there’s not an ounce of flab here, nothing inessential to the urgent goal of getting the key characters where they’re going before the clock expires.

One of the key components of achieving this ambition is to make sure that the characters talk really fast and mostly angrily. Taking the lead in this mode is the permanently pissed off Jimmy Silva (Wahlberg), a senior intelligence officer that’s part of an ultrahigh-tech paramilitary team first seen invading a safe house in the suburban U.S. and violently dispatching a bunch of Russian spies. The basic message of this ramped-up prologue is that, if you’re an enemy of the U.S., you really don’t want to call yourself to the attention of these guys and gals.

But a couple of years later, you’d think we were still in the middle of the Cold War, as the Russians are at it again, eavesdropping on the Yanks at their spying outpost in a Southeast Asian country called Indocarr (how did they come up with this nonsensical name?). Jimmy is still — guess what — pissed off, barking and yelling at everyone and indulging in the charming nervous habit of snapping a thick elastic wristband when he’s tense, which is all the time. In short, he’s a pain to work with, but he’s very good at his job, which means other good agents trust him with their lives in “this dark work” they do.

Focusing everyone suddenly is the arrival of deep intelligence source Li Noor (Iko Uwais, star of the great, ultraviolent Indonesian action dramas The Raid: Resurrection and The Raid 2). He’s a man on urgent business, stating that he has an encrypted hard drive that reveals the location of a missing radioactive isotope powerful enough to create extensive nuclear damage and the names of those responsible for its theft. All he asks for is asylum and safe passage out of the country, but he’s put a clock on everything to ensure immediate cooperation.

Things quickly escalate: Authority over the operation ascends to the secret upper stratum of espionage called “Overwatch,” which is lorded over by a fellow named Bishop (John Malkovich), who enjoys quite a free hand, unhindered by bureaucracy. His first step is to call in the drones. But the narrative’s building blocks consist of constructs put in place simply to create a more dangerous physical obstacle course that must be negotiated either before the enemy can strike or Li Noor’s deadline arrives.

Nearly all of the scenes, therefore, crackle with urgency, split-second decisions, shouted commands, sudden violence, close calls, hair-breadth escapes and mad dashes required to climb aboard the plane that might get everyone where they need to be in time.

Berg has been practicing and refining this mode of pared-to-the-bone filmmaking for a while now and he’s got little left to prove; after four films in five years with Wahlberg designed to put audiences through the wringer — Lone Survivor, Deepwater Horizon, Patriots Day and now this — it’s clear the director knows how to cut to the chase and the bone. Unless you’re simply immune to the effects of high-adrenaline action cinema, it’s hard not to admire the super-charged effectiveness of Berg’s individual scenes.

On the other hand, like an athlete that leaves it all on the field, the film leaves it all in the moment and on the screen, and there’s really nothing to take away afterward. There is nothing to think about, no nuance to contemplate, no connection with these characters that exist only in moments of hypertension and crisis, no greater truths to consider other than to prevail — which is to a great degree here dependent upon two factors, better technology and nerve, which these Yanks have.

From an action connoisseur’s perspective, there is pleasure to be had in observing how close to the bone Berg can cut things before what’s going on becomes incoherent; it’s easy to imagine him in the editing room demanding more be cut off both ends of a take, then more, then more again, until the action is reduced to a near-blur of movement. Some of the violence is breathlessly, even beautifully expressed, with the director experimenting with how far he can take his style.

Wahlberg keeps his seething character continually on the edge of exploding; it’s a good thing this guy is allowed, by virtue of his job, to unwind and let off steam by dispatching a bad guy every now and then; otherwise, you feel, he’d either go nuts or lethally take it out on his poor subordinates, already having to deal with more than they should from him.

The point of the story, in the end, may indeed be to bring a spy in from the cold, but temperamentally and stylistically, Mile 22 stands as the antithesis of anything in the John le Carre canon; where everything in Berg’s film is feverish, stoked and shouted, for le Carre, matters are gray, ambiguous and sotto voce. There is plenty of skill and a measure of merit in the compressed style Berg has been developing of late, but shadings, nuance and the enigmatic are the first casualties.

Production companies: STX Entertainment, Closest to the Hole Productions, Leverage Entertainment, Film 44
Distributor: STXfilms
Cast: Mark Wahlberg, Lauren Cohan, Iko Uwais, Ronda Rousey, John Malkovich
Director: Peter Berg
Screenwriter: Lea Carpenter, story by Graham Roland, Lea Carpenter
Producers: Peter Berg, Mark Wahlberg, Stephen Levinson
Executive producers: John Logan Pierson, Graham Roland, Donald Tang, Jonathan Gray, Matthew Rhodes, Judd Payne, Randall Emmett, Derek Collison, Sam Slater, Scott Carmel, David Bernon, Wang Zhongjun. Wang Zhonglei, Felice Bee, Robert Simonds, Adam Fogelson, Stephen Levinson
Director of photography: Jacques Jouffret
Production designer: Andrew Menzies
Costume designer: Virginia Johnson
Editors: Colby Parker Jr., Melissa Lawson Cheung
Music: Jeff Russo
Casting: Sheila Jaffe

Rated R, 94 minutes