By Preston Wilder
Mark Wahlberg puts it best, in the indigestible Mile 22: “Welcome to the new wars”. A rancid blend of grisly heroics and ugly-Americanisms, this sub-Bourne actioner has a certain superficial energy – it moves incredibly fast, for one thing – but everything about it is misjudged including Wahlberg as CIA agent James Silva, matching the film’s hyperactivity with his own. Silva is supposedly a former child prodigy whose mind races faster than the average person’s – but mostly you just wish he’d shut up for two seconds. The most satisfying moment in the whole film comes when boss Bishop (John Malkovich), driven to distraction by Silva ranting at the local cops with the clock ticking, snaps at him over the radio: “Stop monologuing, you bipolar f**k!”.
Still, there is something new about these wars. Late-August movies are a race to the bottom, and neither of this week’s new releases is remotely a good film – yet it’s often in these rickety failures that you glimpse something new about the state of the world. What to make, for instance, of the puzzling scene in Mile 22 where a well-dressed Indonesian woman (the film is set in Jakarta) walks into the US Embassy and seeks asylum, claiming that the government is trying to steal her millions? It’s not coded as a scam, at least I don’t think so – yet Silva mocks the woman and sends her on her way, because “what America doesn’t need” is apparently more rich foreigners. Then you have Li Noor (Iko Uwais, from The Raid) who has the secret code to locating a deadly chemical, and is willing to share with the CIA – but only if they put him on a plane for the US. Sounds fair enough, yet instead the Americans threaten to torture him, and it takes an “ouroboros disc” to secure his safe passage to the airport with Silva as minder.
Translation: America is a fortress nowadays, not easily breached – and the whole film has a sour, paranoid feel, down to the pointlessly caffeinated style (when you’ve got a martial-arts star of Uwais’ calibre, you don’t shred his fight scenes with pell-mell editing and needless cross-cutting). Silva talks and talks in the tirade-heavy way of a blogger spouting conspiracy theories – “You think you understand the meaning of collusion? You know nothing!” – and meanwhile our heroes have no qualms about “extreme violence”, or executing people in cold blood (though they ask for permission first, which is nice). Top of the list are the Russians, of course, lurking on the fringes and exchanging cryptic Russian dialogue about needing to kill “the idea that we are weak”. Memo to everyone concerned: you’re leading us straight into World War Three, you bipolar f**ks.
Meanwhile, back on the internet… Slender Man emerged from the internet, as a meme in 2009 – and Slender Man is aimed at the early-teen demographic who live on the internet, this being another PG-13 horror (though it’s rated ‘15’ here) without a drop of blood or gore. The jump-scares are notably weak (help, there’s something in the library! no, it’s just… a librarian!), indeed the whole film is weak – but it’s weak in interesting ways, striking a tone that’s increasingly desolate and introverted.
Four feisty girls summon Slender Man (a faceless spectre who preys on innocent youth), and wish they hadn’t. That’s the plot, in its entirety – and the girls are alone, without hope of salvation. There’s no magic trick to get rid of the demon. Parents and cops disappear, Wikipedia being the girls’ only friend as they seek a solution. It looks for a moment like a boy might come to the rescue, but he doesn’t. The film is all dead ends and tangents: one girl becomes a kind of zombie, and that’s the last we see of her (she’s still around, the film just forgets about her). The script – by David Birke, who wrote the kinky Isabelle Huppert drama Elle – has sex on its mind: Slender Man is implicitly equated with the sexual predators a girl might meet on the internet (“He knows you’re interested. He’s already watching”). The nightmares he ushers include visions of pregnancy – though he’s also compared to a virus, as in computer virus. Sex and computers: the twin obsessions of the modern teenager.
Slender Man can’t be enjoyed at face value; it’s a bad, ineffective horror movie that nonetheless, whether by accident or design – probably accident – finds a charged, frustrated quality that feels very current. The teenagers sink into inertia; the filmmaking gets increasingly outlandish (as if to balance the fact that a PG-13 Slender Man was never going to be very scary), with kaleidoscope effects and surreal fragments like an image of a girl in pieces. “That feels wrong, like Russian malware-y virus shit,” muses one girl – and there, once again, are the Russians, bringing us back to Mile 22. These are B-movies offering incidental snapshots of a troubled time in America, both of them crowned by unexpectedly, almost wilfully downbeat endings. Welcome to the new wars, indeed.
DIRECTED BY Sylvain White
STARRING Joey King, Julia Goldani Telles, Jaz Sinclair
US 2018 93 mins
DIRECTED BY Peter Berg
STARRING Mark Wahlberg, Lauren Cohan, John Malkovich
US 2018 94 mins