15 April 2013. It’s the day of the Boston Marathon and Sgt Tommy Saunders (Mark Wahlberg) is reluctantly back in uniform and on station at the finish line to babysit the VIPs in attendance. Then at 2.49pm, two homemade bombs go off and the event is plunged into chaos.
Topical, gritty, and competent to a tee, Peter Berg’s movies have also become stonkingly predictable of late. The hallmarks — a maverick everyman-in-peril, a thinly sketched wife back home, bursts of well-choreographed violence, and a moody post-rock soundscape (Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross here) — are so dependable, you can play Berg bingo with them. They’re coming thick and fast, too. Patriots Day, a sporadically exciting true-life account of the 2013 Boston bombings drama, comes so soon after his oil-rig disaster flick Deepwater Horizon, we’ve barely had time to wash the crude off.
This is another disaster procedural that stamps its director as modern cinema’s Irwin Allen. Where Allen stocked The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno with as many movie stars as he could fit on a poster, Berg leans heavily on one. Mark Wahlberg, reuniting with the director for the third film in a row, is Boston ’tec Tommy Saunders, a hot-tempered cop on his final day doing penance back in uniform for a never-specified misdemeanour. As chance would have it, it’s the day a pair of radicalised Chechen immigrants, Dzhokhar (Alex Wolff) and Tamerlan Tsarnaev (Themo Melikidze), choose to attack the city.
Would that there were a little more human insight to go along with the pyrotechnics.
After a brief prelude to establish a clutch of other characters and showcase the buzz of Boston on race day, the bombs go off and the movie lurches forward. In two flashes, Wahlberg’s cop is surveying a scene littered with broken bodies and panicked people. If there’s an uncomfortable hint of disaster porn as the camera pans across the carnage, there’s little time to dwell on it. Before we’ve caught breath, Kevin Bacon’s FBI team have set up shop in a neighbouring warehouse to find the culprits. There are some fiery encounters between Bacon, Boston’s mayor (Vincent Curatola) and police commissioner (John Goodman) as they clash over jurisdictions and bark Bostonian epithets at each other.
A composite of several real people, Saunders boasts all the sweary charm and no-bullshit manner Wahlberg excels at (Michelle Monaghan takes the thankless wife role). Helpfully, he’s also on hand at every key juncture of the bombing, its immediate aftermath and the subsequent pursuit of the perpetrators. You’re half-surprised he doesn’t pop out of the terrorists’ cutlery drawer when they’re packing for their next atrocity.
While the pursuit is briskly handled, there’s little light shone on the terrorists themselves. Wolff is terrific as the boyish but casually cruel Dzhokhar, but there’s more interest in what makes his bombs tick than him. Lazily, Berg’s trademark end subtitles (bingo!) tie up several loose ends the movie has left hanging. In this case, a trio of Dzhokhar’s college friends discover his plan but do nothing to report it. Their destinies, along with those of other key characters, are only revealed as the credits roll. Would that there were a little more human insight to go along with the pyrotechnics.
The third part of Berg’s unofficial Americans-in-crisis trilogy will play better for US audiences than overseas, but it’s still a pacy and often enthralling disaster movie.