Patriots Day is an efficient, but surprisingly uninvolving dramatization of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings. Mark Wahlberg stars as Sgt. Tommy Saunders, a police detective who is assigned uniformed duty at the race’s Boylston Street finish line in order to work off a brief suspension (the character is a fictional composite of several people). Saunders has a bum knee, a drinking problem, and is embarrassed to be wearing a “clown suit,” a bright-orange safety vest that makes him look like a crossing guard. He also isn’t keen on being around all of the dignitaries who will be present. But his attitude quickly changes when two bombs explode; he snaps into action by assisting the victims, and is soon helping the FBI zero in on the perpetrators by telling them which surveillance cameras the terrorists likely passed. Brothers Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev are identified as the suspects, and a citywide manhunt is swiftly underway.
What follows is obviously predictable, since the details of Tamerlan’s death during a shoot-out with police and Dzhokar’s capture while hiding in a covered boat in a Watertown neighborhood are well-known. Director Peter Berg, who also teamed with Wahlberg on the superior Lone Survivor and Deepwater Horizon, does manage to insert some much needed suspense into the picture: He stages an intense encounter between the brothers and Dun Meng (Jimmy O. Yang), a young Chinese entrepreneur who is forced to drive along with the killers when they hijack his Mercedes, as well as a rousing gun battle that eventually fells Tamerlan. Elsewhere, the vigorous grilling of Tamerlan’s wife Katherine Russell (Melissa Benoist) by an FBI interrogator (a brief but brilliant Khandi Alexander) is, by far, the film’s best scene.
Unfortunately, the rest of the movie plods along in a workmanlike fashion. John Goodman, J.K. Simmons, and Kevin Bacon pop up as a police commissioner, a cop, and an FBI specialist, respectively, but their brief appearances make little impact. We spend much more time with the Tsarnaevs; we see them in their home and are present when they commit their crimes, yet no effort is made to understand their motives. Maybe that’s fine—they certainly deserve no sympathy—but it’s odd for a movie entertainment (and make no mistake, Patriots Day is very much a Hollywood entertainment) to present terrorists in such a humdrum manner. Themo Melikidze and Alex Wolff are fine as the siblings, but they’re given very little nuance to play: One barks orders and the other simply follows.
It’s also disappointing that Berg and his fellow screenwriters Matt Cook and Joshua Zetumer constantly pepper the dialogue with F-bombs. Maybe everyone in Boston utters the F-word as often as possible, but even if they do, it’s off-putting, especially for a film striving to honor Beantown’s best. As for Wahlberg, he’s solid as ever, but his unruly detective is more of a story device than a fleshed-out character. He gives the movie a convenient way to follow the investigation, yet his appearances at every key location—from the finish line where the bombs explode to the FBI’s staging area at the Black Falcon terminal during a pivotal point in the probe to the Watertown shoot-out—are hardly credible. And it’s sad that a fictional character emerges as the film’s primary hero, while many authentic ones are ignored. He also serves as the unfortunate mouthpiece for a syrupy “love conquers all” bromide near the end.
After the fictional account of the story concludes, real-life victims, first responders, and law-enforcement officials appear onscreen. Their brief interviews are infinitely more affecting than anything seen or heard in the previous two hours, and you realize that Berg would have been better off making a documentary: Hollywood actors can’t compare with the real thing.