The Loud American

Mile 22

by Matt Weiner

Equal parts John le Carré and John Carpenter if both men were lobotomized and then let loose with typewriter and camera, Mile 22 spends most of its brief running time trying to figure out if it has something meaningful to say. All the while, it stacks a public body count up so high that it’s impossible to see how the clandestine force responsible is going to stay secret long enough to become a film franchise.

And while the movie has ambitions at creating new intellectual property around the paramilitary Overwatch program introduced in the film, it’s a bit of a head fake for this first outing. For all its spy vs. spy setup and technobabble, director Peter Berg uses espionage as window dressing for a simple action setup that’s all about brute force.

Mark Wahlberg heads up the CIA team as James Silva, a prickly leader whose instability is used as a stand-in for self-effacing humor. Silva’s team springs into action when a local source Li Noor (Iko Uwais) surrenders to a U.S. Embassy claiming to have information that can help stop a nuclear attack. Silva’s team of elite operatives are tasked with escorting Noor safely out of the country, which becomes a lethal mission when Noor’s own intelligence agency works to stop the extraction at any cost.

To call Silva’s team ragtag would do a disservice to stereotype—it actually would’ve been nice if anybody rose to some level of quirkiness, or any distinction apart from fungible cannon fodder. Ronda Rousey comes close to having a compelling hook, which is: look, it’s Ronda Rousey! But the main emotional labor falls to The Walking Dead star Lauren Kerr as Alice, whose defining character trait is that she has a daughter waiting for her back home.

Thankfully, the team—and the film—have a secret weapon in Uwais. The Indonesian martial artist and choreographer best known for The Raid series gets to show off his captivating fighting style that’s a ballet of bone dislocation. The downside is that he goes underused for so long that his breakout set pieces serve mainly as a reminder that you’d be better off watching The Raid.

There’s a ludicrous nihilism underpinning the film that is almost refreshing for a Berg/Wahlberg pairing. But the script (written by Lea Carpenter) is so humorless it’s genuinely difficult to make out how much of this is Berg and company trying to make a statement about the War on Terror and how much is just the inevitable byproduct of a tight 90-minute cut that only comes alive during the brutal one-on-one fight scenes. John Malkovich’s arch turn as an anonymous and ultimately meaningless government agent, for example, is far more vital—and still relevant—under the direction of the Coen brothers in Burn After Reading than it is here, even though the two roles share an uncanny echo.

Mile 22 doesn’t offer up much replay value as anything more than a fun but forgettable live-action video game level. Although as far as meta-commentary on espionage thrillers goes, this strange blend of individualism and irrelevance might be all we have to look forward to for a while.

 

 

Strong

Patriot’s Day

by George Wolf

If director Peter Berg and star Mark Wahlberg are on a mission to salute America’s unsung heroes, they’re doing a damn fine job. After Lone Survivor and Deepwater Horizon, they bring a similar formula to Patriot’s Day and achieve even more satisfying results.

A chronicle of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing and the frenzied search for terrorist bombers that followed it, the film employs a breathless timeline and confident pacing to triumphantly salute the courage, compassion and dedication of a city under siege.

As he did so well in Deepwater Horizon last year, Berg opens with quick snapshots of the many lives involved (terrorists included), efficiently creating a layer of humanity and emotional depth. The explosions are sudden and jarring, presented with a compelling mixture of chaos and carnage, as bloody limbs and shell shock bring us uncomfortably close to the suffering.

The ensuing manhunt is nothing less than thrilling, with the rock-solid ensemble cast (including Kevin Bacon, John Goodman, J.K. Simmons, Michelle Monaghan and a fully committed Wahlberg) illustrating the harried teamwork of first responders and government agencies.

Strong and sturdy with undeniable spirit, Patriot’s Day stands as a fitting tribute to both individual heroes and an entire city itself.

Verdict-4-0-Stars

 

 

Safety Dance

Deepwater Horizon

by George Wolf

With a nice throwback vibe, crackling tension and terrific ensemble acting, Deepwater Horizon is a surprisingly compelling package. Director Peter Berg, surpassing his similar work with Lone Survivor three years ago, is again all about making sure a tragic true-life tale is told with proper respect for the heroes involved.

This tragedy was the worst in U.S. oil .drilling history, as the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded off the coast of Louisiana in 2010, killing 11 crew members and exposing a scandalous gap in safety protocols from BP.

Berg, armed with a crisp, economical script from Matthew Michael Carnahan and Matthew Sand, introduces us to the souls involved with a rapid succession of quick vignettes from their day, just hours just before boarding the rig. Mike (Mark Wahlberg, as good as he’s ever been) gets frisky with his wife Felicia (Kate Hudson), while Andrea (Gina Rodriquez from TV’s Jane the Virgin) can’t get her car started and has to hitch a ride to the airport from her boyfriend, and so on.

Snapshots of crew members’ lives crisscross each other, and the film needs minimal screen time to get us invested in multiple personalities. This is a roadblock for scores of films that Berg and his writers sweep away. They give us people to care about, and they increase the chance that events to come will resonate. Extra points for providing helpful primers on drilling practices in ways that feel organic, such as Mike’s daughter rehearsing a classroom presentation.

The tension builds steadily, with a single bubble of air escaping from an undersea drill line, and leads to a spectacularly staged string of explosions that engulf the entire structure. Berg has long shown his skill as a tactician, and here he gets us breathtakingly close to the chaos with an authenticity that’s refreshingly unencumbered by CGI effects.

You may be reminded of more recent movies (especially Wahlberg’s own The Perfect Storm), but Deepwater Horizon has a retro kinship with classic disaster films of the 70s, along with an in-the-moment humanity that salutes the real players whose lives hung in the balance.

Verdict-3-5-Stars

 

 

Just Keeping It Real

 

by George Wolf

 

From the opening moments of Lone Survivor, it’s clear writer/director Peter Berg kept one goal above all others: honor the Navy SEALS at the heart of this harrowing true life tale.

By most accounts he’s done that, and his adaptation of the 2007 memoir by SEAL Marcus Luttrell emerges as a single-minded war movie of both power and intensity.

In 2005, “Operation Red Wings” sent a four man SEAL team into Afghanistan to eliminate a  senior Taliban leader. The mission was compromised, a firefight ensued and an attempt to rescue the team turned tragic. Only Luttrell was left alive.

It’s a riveting tale, and Berg (Friday Night Lights/The Kingdom) anchors it with the brotherhood among the men involved, and the unflinching devotion to their duty. We don’t get intimate profiles of any of the characters, but we get enough to feel we know them, and more importantly, we see how deeply they identify with each other, with their team, and with their respective places in it.

Though Mark Wahlberg stars as Luttrell, Berg wisely does not tilt the screen time in his favor, and we fear for each member of his team equally, even though we already know what the eventual outcome will be. Credit Wahlberg, and co-stars Taylor Kitsch, Ben Foster, and Emile Hirsch with solid performances that are able to resonate collectively, yet still illustrate the anguish of a fallen comrade.

Berg’s touch with the battle scenes is equally focused, filming with an intentional frenzy full of gut-wrenching stunt work.  Keeping these sequences nearly absent of background music or superfluous pageantry, the unmistakable aim is to present this hellish scenario as the men themselves knew it.

Of course, as a war film, Lone Survivor carries instant baggage, seemingly destined to be labeled either jingoistic, un-American or misinformed. Clearly looking to avoid the “that’s not how it’s done” barbs slung at Zero Dark Thirty, Berg spent a month embedded with a SEAL team in Iraq, and his film offers no apologies for its abundant machismo or respectful salute.

The catch-22 is, this approach works at the expense of a layered dramatic narrative that makes movies such as Zero Dark Thirty so compelling.

To be fair, though, Lone Survivor never aims that high. It is a film that mainly wants us to understand what it takes to do a job that most of us can’t even fathom.

Consider that mission accomplished.

 

 

Verdict-3-0-Stars