Last year, director/writer Peter Berg made “Deepwater Horizon”, a true-story action thriller that starred Mark Wahlberg saving numerous people from explosions. This year Berg made “Patriots Day”, a true-story action thriller that stars Mark Wahlberg saving numerous people from explosions. At least he’s found a niche.
Thankfully, Berg is a talented action director, so these similar films are both worth watching. Surprisingly, “Patriots Day” is worthwhile for different reasons than its predecessor, though Berg’s usual shortcomings annoy a little more than usual.
“Patriots Day” lives by its unique tonal choices and dies by the fiction that Berg adds to the story. While its narrative conventions are so tired that they should’ve been put to rest long ago, it still succeeds as an effective and uplifting rendition of the heroism shown during the Boston Marathon bombing.
The majority of “Patriots Day” adheres pretty strictly to the actual events of the 2013 terrorist attack and its aftermath. The film begins hours before the marathon, introducing all of its characters in the unashamedly obvious way that Berg starts many of his movies: a montage that gives each characters a couple minutes of “here’s why you should care about this person.”
Husbands wake up next to their wives, couples discuss their plans for the future, a young man Facetimes his doting parents, a cop finally asks out a pretty girl, etc. The screenplay prefers to get all the character development out of the way in the first few minutes and then send everybody out into a warzone of bombs and guns. The boldfaced lack of effort “Patriots Day” displays here earns little care for its heroes and victims. This is especially unfortunate given the events of the film actually transpired.
Well, except for anything to do with Mark Wahlberg’s Police Sergeant. His character is completely fabricated, assumedly to give the biggest star a reason to exist in every scene possible. Wahlberg unrealistically shows up all over the place: he’s feet away from the bombings, he’s a key player in the FBI’s investigation of the attack, he somehow manages to head up the separate captures of both bombers. He’s the one to give expert advice or a rousing speech that summarizes the movie’s themes whenever needed.
Though Wahlberg does bring gravity to the role, Berg’s use of him as a convenient conduit cheapens the real-life story. The tone the director establishes, however, saves the day.
“Patriots Day” feels far more like a horror than a thriller, an intentional choice that distances the movie from the rest of Berg’s work. The aftermath of the explosions is paced, shot, and scored like a traditional horror. Thus a distinct feeling of tension and dread permeates the proceedings, forming a clear picture of how shockingly awful the terrorist violence was for Bostonians.
Subsequent shootouts and car thefts return to a thriller tone, but Berg pieces these action sequences together so deftly that the shift is captivating. His blunt methods of framing action prove exciting and provide plenty of moments worth cheering for.
“Patriots Day” honors Boston and the heroism of its citizens more than it dwells on horror. The film’s celebration of the community’s propensity to stand up to hate is inspiring. If you can get past unimaginative character work and J. K. Simmons’ overdone Boston accent, a rousing fight against hate awaits fans of the true-story action genre.
★★★½ (3.5 out of 5)