Bad movies happen all the time. Anybody can make a bad movie: all you need is some flat dialogue, lazy cinematography, actors in over their heads, an unprepared director, poorly thought-out story beats, an inattentive editor, cheap sound equipment. Or any combination of the above. No, there's nothing particularly interesting about a bad movie. But a boondoggle - now there's something we don't get just every day. Some films are just plain wrong, failing to come together in some deeply fundamental way that seems like it almost takes more work to get this far off track than it would have been to simply make a dull, sloppy movie.

And here, in its waning days, the summer of 2018 has produced a full-on, no-two-ways- about it boondoggle, in the form of Mile 22. The film is the fourth collaboration between star Mark Wahlberg and director Peter Berg, after Lone Survivor in 2013 and the twofer of Deepwater Horizon and Patriots Day in 2016, none of which really adds up to much of a tradition of quality. Even so, Mile 22 is on a wholly different plane of existence that I would have assumed Berg was simply too competent to ever reach. And I am well aware that Berg directed 2012's Battleship, so I don't think I can be accused of having a needlessly optimistic opinion of his filmmaking abilities.

The film, as scripted by Lea Carpenter from a story credited to her and Graham Roland, is straightforward enough: in what is probably Jakarta but is mostly played in exteriors by Bogotá and Atlanta, a cop named Li Noor (Iko Uwais) has information about missing cesium wants to defect to the United States. To make this happen, a U.S. black ops strike team known as Overwatch, led by James Silva (Wahlberg), has to transfer him 22 miles across the city in something less than three hours. And I say "something less than three hours" on purpose, because as straightforward as this concept is - "get across the city in an unreasonably short amount of time" is practically its own subgenre of action cinema - Mile 22 does absolutely everything in its power to keep fucking up, including its refusal to offer even the slightest sense of time or space passing. There is absolutely no sense of continuity, just a series of occasional signposts: now we've just started out; now we have twelve miles to go; now we have five miles to go but also only around 10 minutes to cover them. And at no point does anything in the script or the staging or the lighting or anything that could give us a contextual clue for where the shit we are in time or space bother to do so. It's basically just loud, noisy movement, with the assurance that there is a ticking clock somewhere, over there, who knows. I mean, there is one thing we care about. It is the thing the title itself draws our attention to. X miles in Y minutes. When both the miles and the minutes are rendered so incomprehensibly, there simply isn't anything left of the movie. Meanwhile, we keep seeing Silva addressing some investigators after the events of the film apparently go south, in a cross-cutting flash-forward structure that manages to be annoying in its own right - Wahlberg is terrible in these scenes, delivering the staccato dialogue with lifeless speed and misguided emphases - while also spoiling the tension of the movie we're watching, and making it hard to follow on top of it.

So the film is incoherent at the broad level of its plot, and it's also incoherent all the way down to the smallest level of each individual cut. Routinely, I lost track of who was standing where in any given action sequence, with scenes often devolving down into individual shots of characters for a fraction of a second followed by an action that they're not performing or a different character that they're no interacting with. If the purpose was to demonstrate the chaos and confusion faced by the Overwatch team, then mission accomplished, but I don't really see why that was the goal. Anyway, I rather doubt it was, for two reasons: one is that it doesn't always apply. Aye, the film has pitched gun battles with motorcyles and drones zooming about, but it also has hand-to-hand fight scenes, usually the ones focusing on Uwais, and as far as I can make out, these have really excellent fight choreography. These are more controlled and self-contained, but they're just as frenzied in the cut, making that really excellent fight choreography inordinately hard to follow, and when you have made the first major English-language fight sequences built around the star of The Raid and The Raid 2 inordinately hard to follow, you have fucked up, pure and simple.

The other reason is that Mile 22 actually does have one legibly-made sequence, and it's just as chaotic: the opening, demonstrating how Overwatch works by showing all of the carefully worked-out communication patterns between Silva, offsite supervisor Bishop (John Malkovich), and the various team members we'll get to know keep seeing repeatedly for the rest of the movie, along with the litany of ultra-high-tech surveillance toys they use to keep track of every movement in a single building. Setting aside the question of whether it's unbearably horrifying to valorise the kind of untrammeled spy power showcased in this scene, at least it functions as a story; at least it has a sense of building tension and quickening rhythm. No other scene in the movie can claim these things.

Alright then: the film is a hectic, sloppy mess, presenting indistinct fragments of incident in a framework that has an extraordinarily murky thematic outlook: I guess it's pro-surveillance state, and pro-the use of American special ops forces to wreak mischief in other countries, but that's really just a guess. Silva himself is an impossible character, presented as a genius with a brain that works so fast that he needs to keep snapping himself with a rubber band to keep in the present moment (Walhberg relies on this bit of physical business to a deeply upsetting degree), always making the best possible choice and committing to the hard sacrifices, but also regarded with frank candor as an unhinged lunatic whose monomania is dangerous to himself and the world even by those around him. I think the film sides with him in general, but it presents a compelling argument that he's a benighted fool convinced of his own infallibility, perhaps by accident. Anyway, this ambivalent representation is the very closest thing we'll get to characterisation in the whole film: that, and Carpenter's addiction to rat-a-tat dialogue that sounds like the goal was Sorkin-style creative prattle, but bogged down in a whole lot of different incarnations of the word "fuck". One character, Alice Kerr (Lauren Cohan), gets this really odd subplot about her acrimonious divorce, and the app her husband is using that shuts down conversations whenever vulgarity or otherwise abusive language pops up, and I guess that's characterisation too. Mostly it just feels like an awkward intrusion of something the screenwriter really cares about in a super-uncomfortable way, like that one Transformers movie which had the whole long scene explaining the nuances of age-of-consent laws. Which was also a Walhberg vehicle, come to think of it.

At any rate, Mile 22 is a wreck in all ways: morally unpleasant when you can figure out what the fuck is happening (which is rarely), populated by shrill cartoon characters, loud and monotonous in its action scenes. The plot is a shambles, the tension evaporates the instant it's generated, and there's not a single appealing character in the lot. Basically, it's the deadliest possible combination of impenetrable and boring, treating its own story with a kind of indifferent contempt. To be fair, contempt is just about right.