Aspiring franchise-starter ‘Mile 22’ trips at the starting line

Again, this Option 3 — still very much military. Images courtesy STXfilms.

2/10 Mile 22 is from director/producer Peter Berg and star/producer Mark Wahlberg, the creative team that has dedicated itself recently to hyper-jingoistic movies like Lone Survivor and Patriots Day, and they aren’t all that bad. Deepwater Horizon in particular is a stunningly effective — and not particularly political — film. Besides, fascy movies can be good. Look at 300 — that movie’s fascist as shit, and it’s great! And in Mile 22, they add Iko Uwais to the cast, the golden god of silat who made the Raid movies possible.

So I came into Mile 22 with fairly high hopes.

They weren’t met.

When negotiating with other countries for the security of U.S. interests, option one is diplomacy, option two is military and option three is also very much military. Special agent Jimmy Silva (Wahlberg) leads Overwatch — not the team from the massively successful video game, this movie is aimed exclusively at people out of touch enough that they’ve never heard of that, no, it’s a secret black ops team that he insists is somehow functionally distinct from a normal black ops teams.

While searching for misplaced caesium-137 in the fictional Indocarr City, Southeast Asia — Word of God is the movie is set in Indonesia, but the film deliberately keeps this vague. We’ll touch on that later — Silva’s search comes to an unexpected conclusion when local policeman Li Noor (Uwais) says he knows where the caesium is and offers the information in exchange for safe passage to the U.S. Silva and his team must escort Noor to an airstrip 22 miles away through the capital city, which seems to be populated almost entirely by the state intelligence agency. The film is framed as Silva debriefing after the disastrous mission.

Somebody forgot to tell Berg that shaky cam action died with the Bourne movies. Mile 22 is completely unwatchable, and I mean that in the physical sense of the word — the camerawork completely obscures the action in almost all cases. You can not see a god damn thing.

Uwais has a scene where he fights half naked against a pair of assassins and it pains me that I don’t really get to see that, but outside of that, there’s not much to see. Once the team leaves the embassy, it’s a long series of shootouts, which are obviously dangerous but can be pretty boring on camera. Probably the most exciting thing that happens is Silva outflanking the first hit squad that ambushes them, in a maneuver that’s laughably performed. The whole Overwatch team is pinned down and surrounded, then Silva just runs away, runs around a city block, and turns up a block north right next to the bad guys. Then, he gets a big dramatic hero shot while no one turns 90 degrees to the left and guns him down. Imagine this scene from Band of Brothers — pour one out for the lesser Wahlberg — but instead of framing Lt. Spiers’ run as an act of insane luck, it’s framed as a demonstration of his genius.

This brings us to Silva. Mile 22 has been described as “an ode to mediocre white men with big guns,” and Silva is a very mediocre white man with a very big gun. He’s given a backstory, something vague about how he’s a severely ADD orphan who snaps his wristband to keep calm, a tick that dots the rest of the movie without ever generating any real meaning. The backstory seems to be a vague excuse for the inexcusable abuse of his colleagues, mostly women. There’s even a scene where he barges into the women’s locker room to verbally berate one of his charges — it’s super gross.

His gun is also comically big, an HK416 suffocated by a half-dozen attachments even though all he ever uses is the trigger. His choice of weapon becomes even more pathetic on closer inspection — the Internet Movie Firearm Database only identifies two of his attachments, the Trijicon MRO red dot sight and the AN/PEQ-15 ATPIAL. The sight doesn’t magnify vision at all, it just has a bright red dot in the center of the retical to help with fast target acquisition. The other attachment, ATPIAL, stands for advanced target pointer/illuminator/aiming laser — it’s a laser pointer. It also puts a red dot on the target. Other than the flashlight, the only things on his gun that we actually know what they are are completely redundant.

Woops! Wrong Overwatch!

Silva’s firearm is sort of a metaphor for the whole movie. Most of it is completely useless, it gets even more useless the closer you look at it, and it was designed less to be effective and more to appeal to people who fetishize guns, which brings us to maybe the most interesting thing about Mile 22 — its exclusively arch-conservative target audience. It’s written into every aspect of the film’s advertising and many of its details. The intentional vagueness of the foreign country combined with Noor’s desperation to get to America is a huge imposition of American Exceptionalism on the film. In Mile 22, despite spending only a few minutes stateside, we are signaled very clearly that the U.S. is better than “this country.” Before Noor arrives, the film establishes extreme civil unrest in “Southeast Asia,” as if there’s never been riots anywhere else in the world. Indocarr citizens are constantly rioting at the gates of the embassy, wailing and gnashing their teeth to get to the American promised land. Silva even takes a few minutes to mock a walk-in who desperately tries to buy her way into America.

You see, in the world of Mile 22, not even $1.3 billion is enough to get you into this shining city on the hill. This movie understands that it’s not a nation of immigrants, it’s a nation of AMERICANS. To gain access to the paradise that is the U.S., applicants should have to be pure of skin heart! Heart, I meant. What was I saying? Let’s move on.

When expositing the importance of finding the caesium, Johnny Porter (Terry Kinney) a crochety old character who we never see again, says letting the caesium slip through their fingers would be, “The largest intelligence fumble since a flight school in Florida failed to grasp the significance of a 19-year-old Al Queda terrorist saying he didn’t need to learn how to land,” or something horrible and long-winded like that. This type of speech pattern, where he tries to set up his own one-liner but ends up just droning on for about twice as long as he needs to, is very distinctly something old white conservative men like to do when they’re on a power trip — my dad used to do it all the time. Watch the closing statements in debates this election season and you’ll see what I mean.

The other big signifier is a throwaway plot point about how all the agents of Overwatch resign before going on their missions so they can “engage in a higher form of patriotism.” Maybe this is this series’ equivalent of how Mission: Impossible’s IMF team is warned they will be disavowed after every mission? Well, not a series — Mile 22 is obviously not getting a sequel. But the movie seems to be under the impression that resigning from the military is a deep sacrifice of some kind, that the Overwatch team is made up of people who give even more in the service of their country than normal servicemen and women, to provide the U.S. with… deniability? I guess?

Overwatch head James Bishop (John Malkovich) says that his operators are now ghosts after their resignation, but they aren’t! They’re not about to go into hiding and need to erase all record of their existence, they’re about to go into battle outfitted with several thousand dollars worth of U.S. military equipment. The army isn’t a circus, they don’t let you just walk around with grenades and shit, those things are very securely locked up. How is this expected to go? After all the agents are dead, the “Southwest Asian” government calls Trump saying that a bunch of U.S. commandos really fucked the place up, and Trump can say they all coordinately resigned a few hours ago, and therefore couldn’t possibly have been under orders?

Trump’s in the movie, by the way. Bishop pointedly puts a red-hatted bobblehead on his computer before the operation, as if the more subliminal cues to alienate anyone outside of the target audience simply weren’t enough.

The upshot is that Mile 22, with this marketing campaign and content that seems designed to alienate everyone who doesn’t have one of those red hats in their closet, was meant to start a continuing action franchise. The people behind this movie thought that they could support a Die Hard-esque serial just on the backs of moviegoers to whom this sort of dog whistling would appeal, and I’m not sure why they thought that. There’s been a major push in recent years to make movies very exclusively for underserved — well, they think they’re underserved — Christian and conservative audiences. Pure Flix has mostly stayed in its lane with tiny productions for which less than $10 million is still a success. Some of Dinesh D’Souza’s earlier documentaries made significant amounts of money, but nothing that could support a major action franchise, and his past two efforts have done terribly once people realized that his “revealing” documentaries were just longform lies.

Grossing $36.1 million domestic, Mile 22 got more eyeballs than anything D’Souza or Pure Flix has ever put out, but that’s a terrible number when measured against most movies — or, more importantly, when measured against Mile 22’s $50 million budget. While both this and Crazy Rich Asians, with which it shared an Aug. 17 release date, are equally unpleasant as filmgoing experiences, I guess it’s nice to know that a movie that actively includes Asian people is more lucrative than a movie about white people actively excluding them.  

Leopold Knopp is a UNT graduate and managing editor of The Lewisville Texan Journal. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook, follow it on Twitter and Instagram and support it on Patreon. You can reach me at reelentropy@gmail.com.

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