In the debut trailer for STX’s espionage-thriller Mile 22 (which arrived online Tuesday) viewers are plunged into the world of Mark Wahlberg’s surprisingly smiley, plaid-shirt-wearing, top-secret undercover-special-ops agent. He’s a badass tactical commando with a bad attitude, on a mission to “deliver a package” — that is, a young cop played by martial-arts sensation Iko Uwais, who knows where nine pounds of radioactive isotope have gone missing. Wahlberg’s character must transport the man across the film’s unnamed Southeast Asian metropolis, through hailstorms of bullets and gauntlets of assassins (with glowering former UFC champion Ronda Rousey on hand to provide additional muscle).
But beyond its obvious Bourne-esque franchise-building potential, Mile 22 will hit theaters in August with another distinction: It’s director Peter Berg and Wahlberg’s fourth movie together after Deepwater Horizon (2016), Patriots Day, and 2013’s Lone Survivor. The pair have created a kind of cinematic universe of fact-based films plotted around solitary men facing terrible predicaments. Respectively, the largest marine oil spill in history, the Boston Marathon bombing, and a Navy Seal recon mission in Afghanistan gone horribly wrong.
As a work of fiction, Mile 22 obviously upends that formula. But its entry into the growing canon of Wahlberg-Berg collabs begs the question: While both star and filmmaker could have their pick of Hollywood’s plum projects, and each has access to the town’s top tier of talent, what keeps bringing them back to one another time and again?
Sitting with Wahlberg in a Winnebago trailer on a mountain bluff overlooking downtown Burbank last summer, I asked the actor this question directly. “Ari had been trying to put us together for a long time,” he said, name-dropping his heavyweight agent Ari Emanuel, co-CEO of William Morris–Endeavor. “Then Lone Survivor was there. I was in a position to help [Berg] get that movie made. Once we started, I was like, ‘If I could just work with this guy, it would be fantastic.’ And I’ve worked with a lot of people I’ve liked, who I have both professional and personal relationships with. There’s just something about him. He’s like a brother.”
Wahlberg added that he and Berg have a fifth film in development that’s also based on a “true story.” He ticked off Berg’s directorly attributes: “Pete was an actor first. He knows what it’s like to be on both sides of the camera,” Wahlberg said. “He’s super talented, super funny, super thoughtful. Considerate. Tough. We speak the same language.”
Berg: Bros Before Pros
To hear it from Berg, the move away from ripped-from-the-headlines filmmaking with Mile 22 was a deliberate choice — a testosterone-packed palate cleanser after a trifecta of heavy, deep, and real bio-dramas with Wahlberg. The director pitched his star’s character as a talker, someone with vocal opinions, “a guy who was adamant about things.” In other words, as a direct counterpoint to the films they had previously done, in which Wahlberg got to say just one or two lines per scene.
“We were a little burned out, a little fatigued with nonfiction,” Berg told me. “It’s very stressful to make films like Lone Survivor or Deepwater or Patriots Day. You spend a lot of time talking to people who’ve experienced incredible pain and loss. With Mile 22, I think it’s a pretty smart action film. But it’s an action film. It’s meant to be intense.”
When I asked what compelled him to cast Wahlberg so often (their films have combined to gross $327 million worldwide), the director grew expansive. He described the on-set friendship that blossomed between them during production on Lone Survivor, when Berg was 48 and Wahlberg 41, as a sort of late-inning game changer for both men. “As an adult, it’s rare when you make a new friend,” he said. “In our business, you have people like Mark Wahlberg who have big, complex lives. It’s hard for him to find new friends too, people you legitimately get along with. Mark and I have so much in common. Just the way we look at life. And the way we like to live our lives is very similar. Our work ethics are similar. We laugh a lot. He likes my crew, I like his crew. He likes my family, I like his family.”
In other words, the real reason Wahlberg and Berg keep working together is because they simply … like the shit out of each other? But in Hollywood, I would argue, this kind of thing is more rare than you’d think. Tom Cruise has starred in three movies directed by Christopher McQuarrie (and three others he wrote) but there is absolutely zero evidence the two view one another as professional peers let alone ride-or-dies. Samuel L. Jackson has co-starred in six of Quentin Tarantino’s films, but in interviews, you never hear either man speaking affectionately of valuing the other’s friendship. Same thing for Tim Burton and Johnny Depp, despite their shared eight-film run. Klaus Kinski and Werner Herzog’s five films together were characterized by screaming tantrums, threats of physical violence, and, reportedly, on-set gunfire.
Owing to the power dynamic between director and leading man — and the thousand manipulations by the former to engineer a memorable performance from the latter — people in those jobs don’t generally bond as anything close to “brothers.”
Berg, for his part, knows his dynamic with Wahlberg is unusual and openly admits a certain confusion surrounds his penchant for repeatedly casting the A-list actor in his movies. “People are like, ‘Why do you guys keep working together?’” Berg said. “I’m like, ‘Why wouldn’t we? We get along and have a wonderful time making movies.’ I have no problem just working with him over and over again. I enjoy it!”