Now in his third docudrama with director Peter Berg — after starring roles in "Lone Survivor" and "Deepwater Horizon" that showed less versatility than virtual interchangeability — Mark Wahlberg is not quite the hero of "Patriots Day." Rather, he is one of many fungible moving parts that drive the story forward, like cogs in a well-oiled machine.
Part thriller, part police procedural and part documentary-style ticktock, Berg's movie, which he wrote with Matt Cook ("Triple 9") and Joshua Zetumer (2014's "RoboCop"), retells the tale of the massive manhunt for the Boston Marathon bombers. The film uses Wahlberg's Beantown flatfoot Tommy Saunders as the furrowed yet ruggedly handsome face of the army of law enforcement officers that was mobilized after two homemade bombs exploded near the finish line of the 2013 marathon, killing three spectators and injuring hundreds.
Joining such real-life figures as FBI Special Agent Richard DesLauriers (Kevin Bacon), Boston Police Commissioner Ed Davis (John Goodman), Watertown Police Sgt. Jeffrey Pugliese (J.K. Simmons) and Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick (Michael Beach), Wahlberg renders the composite Saunders as a kind of Everycop, an entirely fictional yet serviceable storytelling device that helps viewers follow the furiously focused search for brothers Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev (Themo Melikidze and Alex Wolff) through its many convolutions.
"Patriots Day" starts slow and somewhat predictably, jumping between scenes that introduce us to Saunders, the bombers and some of their soon-to-be victims in the hours leading up to the race. This section of the film hews to a well-worn formula of intercutting snippets of mundane life with shots of the Tsarnaevs' ominous yet creepily deadpan bomb prep, using shrapnel and explosives stuffed into ordinary pressure cookers that they carried to the site in backpacks.
Although Melikidze's Tamerlan, the older sibling and a heavily accented immigrant from Kyrgyzstan, is depicted as the doctrinaire outsider and mastermind of the plot, it is Wolff's slang-spouting stoner Dzhokhar — a more fully assimilated, in many ways utterly typical American teenager — who registers most vividly. Wolff's sleepy-eyed performance, uncannily capturing both the banality and the twisted evil of their actions, is among the film's most indelible and enigmatic pieces of the puzzle.
Not so for Wahlberg, whose work with Berg is starting to feel repetitive, even dull at this point. Whether playing a Navy SEAL, an oil-rig electronics technician or a policeman, he delivers essentially the same carefully calibrated mix of toughness, tenderness and anti-authoritarian attitude. Saunders, who has been temporarily demoted from detective to beat cop for reasons apparently having to do with his drinking, appears throughout the action at the most opportune yet unlikely times, alternately bellyaching about the investigation not moving fast enough and taking matters into his own hands to push them forward himself.
He's there when the bombs explode, springing into action in take-charge fashion, and he's there when the FBI needs a native Bostonian to help sort through the many security cameras that captured the crowd — and that proved indispensable in identifying the suspects. Later, when the Tsarnaevs have fled to suburban Watertown, where they are briefly cornered by local cops in a frenzied barrage of bullets and pipe bombs, Tommy is on that scene as well, in hot pursuit.
The second half of "Patriots Day," involving round-the-clock detective work and then the ensuing chase and search (which involved the killing of Tamerlan and the capture of Dzhokhar), is thrilling at times. After dispensing with the sluggish setup of the film's first act, Berg shifts into high gear, powerfully evoking the feelings of dread and white-knuckle excitement that much of America no doubt felt as the manhunt progressed.
Berg's film is nevertheless not entirely immune from action-movie cliches. After the Tsarnaevs are swarmed by Pugliese and his men, one of Watertown's finest (Cliff Moylan) takes the time to taunt the suspects, in the midst of a pitched gun battle. "Welcome to Wattatown, (expletive)," he says, in the flattest-accented version of an "Expendables" catchphrase you've ever heard.
It's doubtful anyone ever actually said that line. But by the time it gets delivered, along with other, more fact-based action, you'll probably be so far forward on the edge of your seat that you'll believe — or at least wish — that someone had.
"Patriots Day" — 2.5 stars
MPAA rating: R (for violence, graphic images injury, drug use and coarse language)
Running time: 2:13