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Non-Review Review: Mile 22

Mile 22 is an intriguing and muddled piece of work.

Judged by the standards of contemporary filmmaking, Mile 22 is a deeply frustrating and disjointed piece of cinema. In some ways, it seems strange to describe it as a movie. It is a film with one of the most blatant and transparent sequel hooks in recent memory, cutting to the credits at what feels like the end of the second act. This sense of confusion and bewilderment is only increased by Berg’s direction of action sequences, which are disorienting to the point where they come close to incomprehensibility.

Wahl-to-Wahl action.

However, while these elements add up to an underwhelming cinematic experience, there is something strangely compelling in the way that Berg stitches together this relatively straightforward narrative. The chaos at the heart of the movie makes it hard to enjoy the action sequences, but offers an endearing frenetic energy that sustains the film. There are moments when Mile 22 borders on the self-aware, particularly as at careens towards a climax that seems to have been reverse-engineered from two separate Mark Wahlberg memes.

The results are baffling, but fun to pick at.

Picking up the pace.

Peter Berg has always had a very visceral and aggressive style of direction, favouring handheld camera and quick cuts. Mile 22 escalates these tendencies to the point where it feels like Berg might have assembled the final edit is a manner similar to the famous “cut up” method employed by David Bowie, slicing footage into random chunks, throwing it into the air, and then piecing it back together. It isn’t that there are moments within Mile 22 that verge of self-parody, it is that the entire movie is rocketing along that line, with only a single jittery hand on the steering wheel.

There any number of scenes which emphasise Berg’s shaky-cam aesthetic within Mile 22, especially the action sequences. However, it is most striking in what would normally be quieter moments in a movie like this. One tense conversation between a field agent and his supervisor involves such frantic cutting that Mile 22 offers reaction shots to reaction shots to reaction shots. The quiet spaces in Mile 22 are so intense and so kinetic that bobble-head figures bounce wildly even when arranged atop computer screens.

A Rousey-ing set piece.

Repeatedly over the course of Mile 22, Berg struggles to keep his actors’ faces in shot. Many interactions are shot in extreme close-up, with characters moving or turning their head out of the shot. It is a strange way to shoot an exposition scene, muddying the waters at the point where the film is supposed to be setting out its stall. The effect is disconcerting. It is distracting and exhausting, but it is also strangely engaging. Berg never makes a boring choice, even if it also feels like he’s making a half-dozen too many choices in a given scene.

Whether Berg’s style works for big conventional shoot-’em-up action sequences will vary from viewer to viewer, playing much better for audience members accustomed with the visual language of Paul Greengrass. However, there are aspects of Mile 22 that seem to exist simply to showcase the limitations of such an approach. The aforementioned bureaucracy-focused and office-set scenes are one such example, but so is the casting of Iko Uwais.

There are going to be a lot of pictures of characters holding guns in this review.

Uwais is one of the best martial artists working in cinema today, probably best known to western audiences for his work on The Raid and The Raid 2. His physicality is astounding, his stunt work absolutely amazing. The camera loves Uwais, whose body seems capable of impossible contortions and movements at incredible speed. However, the art of many of these sequences is in appreciating the use of space and the sense of timing involving the performers. Martial arts cinema requires a sense of being rooted in a particular shot or sequence. It needs to feel real.

Too much editting can overwhelm a martial arts sequence, disguising (or even diminishing) the artistry involved. Uwais repeatedly bumps up against these limitations in working with Berg in Mile 22. There are a number of sequences that are reasonably impressive, but which seem to have been sliced as eagerly as the anonymous henchmen stabbing at Uwais. The introductory fight sequence in the medical bay works fairly well, but Berg runs into problems later on when he tries to shoot hand-to-hand combat sequences like modern battlefield setpieces, a flurry of edits.

See? Lots of pictures.

Mile 22 repeatedly brushes up against the problem of delivering in terms of action, with a lot of the movie’s bigger set pieces stitched together from shaky handheld camera work that never allows the audience to properly orient themselves in these urban environments. To be fair to Berg, this chaos feels somewhat appropriate. It is visceral. It is unsettling. However, it also gets in way of the kind of pay-off that a film like this requires.

This is a shame, because there are moments when Mile 22 comes close to working. These moments are often moments of build-up. Berg’s handheld photography creates a palpable sense of dread and anxiety, especially when employed in situations where it seems awkward or ill-fitting. The early sequences set within the American embassy in the fictional country of Indocarr drip with tension, a mounting sense that something very bad is about to happen in scenes that cover activities as innocuous as a woman calling her ex-husband or an official interviewing an asylum seeker.

“Hey, I’m like the only guy in the film not carrying an assault rifle.”

The fact that these sequences work so well and that the chaos of the action sequences doesn’t gets at an underlying issue with Mile 22. The film is much better at set-up than it is at pay-off, even without getting into the particulars of the film. The basic premise of Mile 22 will be familiar to any action movie fan; a witness is placed in custody, and a hero is tasked with transporting them through an action movie gauntlet. It is not rocket science. It is the premise of everything from The Gauntlet to Midnight Run to 16 Blocks.

Mile 22 doesn’t necessarily have anything innovate to add to that template. In fact, the movie is decidedly paired down, stripped to its essence. The lead character’s back story is provided in voice over and through news clippings that play over the opening credits. The movie largely avoids any real sense of political or social context, outside of a few winking nods to concepts like “Russia” and “collusion.” In fact, the film is decidedly decluttered of anything resembling a moral perspective, embracing the ruthless brutality of its lead characters without any hesitation or reservation.

“No, I’m afraid I don’t know when I Love You Daddy will be released.”

There are points when this almost works. There is something endearing in the movie’s almost absurd commitment to amoral state-sanctioned violence. There are points at which Uwais is forced to kill characters with his bare hands in increasingly inventive ways, and the film embraces that with relish. Blood flows readily. Berg might struggle to keep his actors’ faces in the frame, but he pays a great deal of attention to the visceral destruction that they have wrought.

At the same time, Mile 22 often seems to try to compensate for its lack of insight or character by throwing more plot into the mix. The narrative of Mile 22 is incredibly simple, but the film insists on trying to muddy it with a non-linear approach. Mile 22 repeatedly cuts away from its action beats to a debriefing with the primary character, who takes the opportunity to espouse profound thoughts on concepts like “warfare” or “battlefields.” One senses that the movie might have been a little more coherent if his interviewers asked more clear-cut questions.

Turning the tables.

However, in spite of all of this, there is a charming absurdity to the way in which Mile 22 is constructed. The film is absurd and ridiculous, and often incoherent. However, it is committed. There is a bizarre zig-zagging anti-intellectualism running through the film, where the jerkish team leader can quote readily from Hiroshima by “Pulitzer Prize-winning author John Hersey” while also hating his tech support because they are “f%$kin’ nerds.”

After all, the entire premise of the movie is built around an elite squad that is intended to “imagine” the terrorist threats of the future. Theoretically, the unit is designed to respond in unconventional ways to unconventional threats. In practice, they behave like every other elite military squad in cinematic history. “We do not look at the past to predict future actions,” boasts the team leader, with some contempt for the idea. “That’s for academics.” He makes this observation, right before listing out a series of past events that he’s trying to prevent from recurring.

“Rile and terror.”

All of this is very silly, but very silly in an appealing action movie sort of way. There are various aspects of the movie where it is clear that the production team has put some thought into how this elite unit is supposed to work, but not so much thought that any of these big bold ideas actually hold together. To pick one example, the team resign before taking on risky missions for which the government needs plausible deniability. Of course, those conveniently timed resignations and rehirings would surely just create a very obvious paper trail leading back to them.

The challenge with Mile 22 is often to figure out exactly how self-aware the film is. The ending perfectly encapsulates the surreal cocktail. On a surface level, it is a deeply cynical and frustrating conclusion built around a series of heavily foreshadowed plot developments that undercuts any sense of closure within the film. On the other hand, Mile 22 is a film that seems to have been consciously reverse-engineered from two precision-timed Mark-Wahlberg-related punchlines that land (pardon the pun) surprisingly well. The entire film becomes a cynical knowing joke.

Mile 22 is as fascinating as it is frustrating.

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