Now in his third docudrama with director Peter Berg, 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.
Berg’s movie portrays the massive manhunt for the Boston Marathon bombers, using Wahlberg’s Beantown flatfoot Tommy Saunders as the 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.
Wahlberg renders the fictional Saunders as a kind of Everycop, a storytelling device that helps viewers follow the furious search for brothers Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev (Themo Melikidze and Alex Wolff).
“Patriots Day” starts slow, 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 intercuts snippets of mundane life with shots of the Tsarnaevs’ bomb prep, using shrapnel and explosives stuffed into ordinary pressure cookers that they carried to the site in backpacks.
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Although Melikidze’s Tamerlan, the older sibling and a heavily accented immigrant from Kyrgyzstan, is depicted as the mastermind of the plot, it is Wolff’s slang-spouting Dzhokhar who registers most vividly. Wolff’s sleepy-eyed performance, 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. 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 felt as the manhunt progressed.
Rated R for violence, graphic injury images, drug use and coarse language. 2:13. Fayette Mall, Frankfort, Hamburg, Nicholasville, Richmond, Winchester.