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Mark Wahlberg Will Not Rest Until You Feel Sorry for Guys Like Him

Plus some other random thoughts about ‘Mile 22’

Life is never easy when you’re a character played by Mark Wahlberg. Often, you’re underestimated or disrespected or taken for granted or easily overlooked. You’re just a regular guy — a cop or a soldier or a blue-collar dad — up against a society that’s lost its common sense or moral bearing. Scary things are emerging in the world, and damn it, if you’re not the only person who can save the day. You didn’t ask to be a hero, but you’re willing to step up to the plate if a hero is needed.

Mile 22 is the latest Wahlberg movie, and it’s very much in keeping with a lot of his previous films. In this action-thriller, he plays James Silva, the head of a super-secret, super-rad CIA team whose job it is to go into dangerous locales and kick a bunch of ass. They operate off the grid — these guys don’t play by the rules, man — and they do the government’s dirty work in order to keep everyday Americans like you and me safe. But do we thank guys like Silva for risking their neck? No, we mostly certainly do not! What a bunch of ingrates we are.

That’s the attitude that oozes from Mile 22, which has no doubt that Silva is a patriot who understands the way the real world works. You hung up on following international protocol and a bunch of laws? Grow up, baby: In a series of vignettes interspersed throughout the movie, Silva confidently lectures his uptight superiors about their naiveté in clinging to an old order that believed in operating aboveboard. I didn’t bother writing down any of Silva’s speeches, but they boil down to this: “Election hacking? Russian collusion? Puh-leeze: I knew about all that years ago, and let me tell you something — it’s far more complicated than you’ll ever understand. You need me! You’re an innocent child, while I’m a silent enforcer protecting America from annihilation! Stop giving me your hippy-dippy liberal crap!”

In other words, Silva presents himself as the Jack Nicholson character from A Few Good Men, never realizing that Nicholson was the villain in that movie.

It’s the tricky thing about the types of characters Wahlberg plays. From one perspective, they’re optimistic portraits of the common man — the Average Joe who just goes out there and does his job. It’s a trope that he and his frequent director Peter Berg have explored in their four films together. Lone Survivor was about a SEAL team trying to survive after being outnumbered by Taliban troops in Afghanistan. Deepwater Horizon was about oil rig employees trying to survive after a catastrophic explosion. Patriots Day concerned the fallout from the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing as cops hunt down the perpetrators. And now in Mile 22 — their first collaboration not based on actual events — Wahlberg must do all he can to stop the spread of weapons of mass destruction. In all these movies, his character is never the aggressor — something bad is always happening to him, and he’s gonna do what needs to get done to take care of it.

It’s easy to see what appeals to Wahlberg about these movies’ simplistic portrayals of heroism. Asked what he hoped Patriots Day would convey, Wahlberg responded, “The strength, the love, the heroic acts of our brave men and women. Being a Bostonian, I always had my sports heroes to kind of look up to and put on a pedestal, but the brave men and women of Boston redefined the term of hero in the way they responded in the face of this tragedy.” When Wahlberg teams up with Berg, he’s saluting uncomplicated heroism, but he’s also putting himself on that pedestal — he’s embodying that heroism so that others can look on with awe at his example.

No wonder, then, that there’s always a bit of martyrdom going on in these movies. Wahlberg’s character is usually positioned as the underdog going up against some boo-hiss, larger-than-life obstacle. In Deepwater Horizon, it’s the jerk bosses whose greed and incompetence causes the explosion. In his other movies, it’s mostly dark-skinned foreigners — or, at the very least, Russians. In every case, it’s an unwelcome outsider who is endangering the Wahlberg character’s way of life. As a result, Wahlberg doesn’t just have to defeat the bad guys — he has to restore the natural order of things. And so his movies with Berg have an uncomfortable reactionary tone to them — a strain of self-pity coursing through their narratives. Look at what the bad people did to me! Look at what they did to us!

If Mile 22 — or any of their previous collaborations — had tried to dissect that worldview, it would have been fascinating. Indeed, some of Wahlberg’s best work comes when he plays men whose stubborn self-righteousness gets upended or lampooned. That’s why he’s so well-paired with Will Ferrell, who became a comedy superstar undercutting macho buffoonery. In The Other Guys and the first Daddy’s Home, Wahlberg plays alpha dogs to the point of self-parody, and the actor’s deadpan comedic tone makes these hopelessly deluded studs’ antics funny. In everything from Pain & Gain to his cameo in Date Night, he’s happily portrayed the hunky meathead, mocking his own beefcake looks. Even in his dramatic work — including The Departed, which earned him an Oscar nomination — he’s shown the ability to reveal depth in his good-guy characters.

But lately, Wahlberg doesn’t just want to be the good guy — he wants his characters to be seen as noble last bastions of old-fashioned values, like self-reliance and quiet virtue. They’re so noble, in fact, that you sense that the star is practically demanding you notice it in him. That’s especially irksome in Mile 22: As Silva, Wahlberg is such a cock of the walk that you suspect that, if Silva could take on a whole world of terrorists on his own, he would, just because it would be easier not having to work with anybody else. None of this, of course, makes him noble; he’s simply feeling sorry for himself because nobody appreciates how awesome he is.

That combination of bluster and self-pity in some Wahlberg characters has prompted journalists to suspect that the actor is a secret fan of Trump, a man who embodies those two same characteristics. For the record, Wahlberg has said that Trump certainly wasn’t his first choice for president, although it’s a little weird that Berg noted that his star channeled Steve Bannon to play Silva. Still, it’s understandable what people see in Wahlberg’s movies: They’re a comforting reaffirmation that average guys can still get stuff done. The world is a confusing, terrifying place, but don’t worry: Mark Wahlberg will most assuredly, albeit with a certain amount of passive-aggressive reluctance, put things right.

You’re welcome, America.

Here are a few other takeaways from Mile 22. (Warning: There will be spoilers.)

#1. Is snapping a rubber band a good way to slow down your brain?

In Mile 22, Wahlberg’s character Silva is introduced as being some sort of bipolar genius whose brain moves so fast that sometimes he can’t cope. On a practical level, what this means is that, throughout the film, Silva has a rubber band on his right wrist that he’ll compulsively snap in order to help him focus. Because Mile 22’s filmmakers don’t seem to have done a lick of actual psychological study, I just assumed that this whole rubber band thing was made up.

Turns out I was wrong — kinda. A 2010 Psychology Today piece from psychologist Harriet Lerner describes the “rubber band technique,” in which her client snaps a rubber band whenever she’s feeling negative. “She doesn’t try to stop the thoughts (which is impossible),” Lerner writes, “but she’s found a way to say howdy to them, and to use her wonderful sense of humor to give each judgmental thought … a little welcome and sendoff.” The idea is that the rubber band jolts the client into not letting the negative thought dominate her mind.

A rubber band snap also can help ward off anxiety. David Brudö and Niels Eék, who developed the wellness app Remente, suggested in a 2017 CNET interview, “Place a rubber band on your wrist, and every time that you start feeling stressed, lightly snap it. The idea is that your brain will subconsciously start avoiding the stimulus (in this case, stress) to prevent the unpleasant snapping of the rubber band.”

There are obviously limits to this advice. While researching online, I found a 2009 Dear Abby column, in which a 15-year-old wrote in to say, “Lately, when I’m upset about something, I have been snapping my wrists with rubber bands. It seemed harmless at first — better than cutting, right? But I have noticed that now I have red lines that never go away and that the welts take longer to disappear, and I’m constantly having to cover them up. … I’m not even sure why I do it, but I’m actually more scared to stop than I am to continue.”

Abby’s advice? Seek out professional help. Also: “Snapping a rubber band is a technique some people use to stop a bad habit, like smoking. You, however, appear to be using it as a way of not dealing with your emotions. The marks on your wrists may be caused because the rubber bands are so tight that they’re cutting off your circulation.”

#2. I hope the movie helps make Iko Uwais a bigger star.

Wahlberg’s team has to transport a double agent safely to a drop-off point, which proves to be far more interesting because the character is played by Iko Uwais. That name may not be familiar to many American viewers, but it’s possible you know a couple films he’s done: The Raid: Redemption and The Raid 2.

That highlight reel includes other action movies he’s made, but the Raid series got U.S. distribution and helped open a lot of people’s eyes (including mine) to what a fantastic martial artist he is. In those films, he plays Rama, a cop determined to take down criminals, no matter how overmatched he is. The Raid: Redemption finds Rama facing off with a whole squadron of bad guys inside a tenement building, while The Raid 2 forces him to go undercover to infiltrate a family of gangsters. Uwais is an incredibly balletic fighter, but he also has decent dramatic chops, always demonstrating the stress this character feels as he tries to stay a step ahead of his foes. J.J. Abrams was so impressed with Uwais and his Raid co-stars that he gave them cameos in The Force Awakens.

Uwais is one of the best parts of Mile 22, keeping us wondering what this double agent is up to — can the guy be trusted? We’re never entirely sure, and while we’re wondering, we get to watch him unleash the sort of athletic, graceful action sequences that have been his M.O. (Uwais was one of the film’s fight choreographers.) Mile 22 may end up being only a mediocre performer at the box office, but it’s guaranteed that everyone that sees it will be knocked out by Uwais.

#3. Yes, somebody actually says, ‘Say hi to your mother for me.’

At first, I thought I was hallucinating. But, no, I really heard it: At the end of Mile 22, when Silva’s team has seemingly safely transported Uwais to his getaway plane, the double agent turns around and tells Silva, “Say hi to your mother for me.” The line provoked a chuckle from my preview audience — I’m pretty sure all of us assumed we had entered some bizarre parallel universe.

For those not familiar with the cultural reference, about 10 years ago Andy Samberg did a bit on SNL where he played Mark Wahlberg who, inexplicably, kept trying to have conversations with animals. These turned out to be pretty one-sided chats, obviously, and they often ended with a frustrated Wahlberg telling the animal, “Say hi to your mother for me.”

The sketches were never exactly funny, per se, but they were so weird that they struck a chord anyway — especially when Wahlberg came on the show to essentially play the Samberg version of himself. All these years later, it’s hard not to see Wahlberg in something and not think, “Say hi to your mother for me.”

And then Uwais actually says the line in the movie! At a really crucial moment where the big twist occurs! What we learn is that Uwais was working with evil Russian agents who are about to get the drop on Mother, John Malkovich’s character who does surveillance work for Silva. That’s the “mother” that Uwais is referring to. Doesn’t matter — the line gets a huge laugh because of the SNL connection. If you ask Wahlberg, though, he seems like he’s not entirely aware of what’s hilarious about it:

By the way, Wahlberg is exactly this same level of cranky throughout Mile 22.