★★★☆☆: 'Patriots Day', running on empty characters

At times absolutely thrilling, Peter Berg tries to fit all of Boston into a blunt action flick

★★★☆☆: 'Patriots Day', running on empty characters

Mark Wahlberg as the fictional police detective Tommy Saunders [Lionsgate]

The really frustrating thing about Peter Berg’s Patriots Day, his third collaboration with Mark Wahlberg, is how the film falls apart whenever the Boston actor is on screen. As Tommy Saunders, a fictional cop turning up to solve every crisis in a film populated with real people, Wahlberg arrives on screen to divert attention away from a film that is sometimes absolutely gripping.

This kind of thing is Peter Berg’s bread and butter, taking a timely and topical story, one whose wounds have just about closed and certainly haven’t fully healed, and grounding the action around a wise-cracking everyman who always makes the right decision. Three movies in, after Lone Survivor and Deepwater Horizon, the squat form of his muse Mark Wahlberg sleepwalks through the film, racing through Boston and shredding through the red-taped of investigative bureaucracy on the hunt for the Tsarnaev brothers.

A disgraced detective on his last day of penance, the clichéd Saunders shouldn’t have even been at the finishing line, but instead (ridiculously) finds himself at the frontline of each and every plot development thereafter. It almost reaches the point that it’s surprising not to find Wahlberg on bended knee tying the shoelaces of the real-life victims who ran the marathon the following year, shown in the film’s moving montage before the final credits roll.

Saunders is not the only thing that doesn’t work, with the film dogged by ups and downs; Patriots Day opens with a number of sentimental scenes, introducing a smattering of victims who will be summarily dispatched when the two bombs go off, almost entirely forgotten as the film pivots towards a cracking and tense police procedural. Michelle Monaghan, Hollywood’s go-to B-lister for the thankless ‘wife who’s a nurse’ role, gets to do nothing bar wear some scrubs, but John Goodman and JK Simmons chew up the scenery in scene-stealing supporting parts as members of the police department. As the bombers, Alex Wolff and Themo Melikidze offer two terrorists so by-the-numbers that the only thing radical about them is how much less interesting all of their scenes are than the police interview carried out with Katherine Russell, Tamerlan’s converted wife, by a shadowy government agent.

Clumsy characterisations aside, Berg’s script and direction do produce some edge-of-your-seat moments. After the bombs go off, Patriots Day becomes incredibly taut and stressful, with intimate scenes of the Tsarnaevs hostage taking quickly mushrooming into hectic and sensational police chases as the FBI and BPD close in on their suspects. Credit too to editors Colby Parker Jr and Gabriel Fleming, who delicately weave in and out real footage from security cameras while framing the frenzied and compelling action scenes in perfectly choreographed and clear ways. And Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, who score the film perfectly.

But problems are always on the horizon and there are still a lot of loose ends to tie up, including the entire population of the city distilled into the concept of ‘Boston Strong’, a Twitter hashtag that became the de facto motto of survivors, bystanders and everyone else getting back on their feet. Berg wants to tell every story he can here, and in refusing to narrow the scope of the film, he loses touch with the parts that work. Every member of the cast list gets their moment in the final montage, some more cursorily than others, but this kind of one-size-fits-all filmmaking offers very little insight into why this happened, how it was solved, and what comes next.

Verdict: Too big and unfocused to find the real heart of the story, when Patriots Day does what it does best, it merits the price of the ticket.

Patriots Day (15A/133mins) is released nationwide of February 24th.

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