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Career Watch: Mark Wahlberg Deftly Commands 'Transformers,' But Isn't It Time for More Challenging Roles?

Photo of Susan Wloszczyna By Susan Wloszczyna | Thompson on Hollywood June 30, 2014 at 10:00AM

Unlike his predecessor Shia LeBeouf, whose rep as a serious artist took a nosedive whenever another “Transformers” sequel clunked onto the screen, Mark Wahlberg had no such problem taking the lead in the fourth entry in the franchise. He easily balances his duties as both a strict single dad and a human recruit in the war against those big bad robots in “Transformers: Age of Extinction.”
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Mark Wahlberg in 'Transformers'
Mark Wahlberg in 'Transformers'

Unlike his predecessor Shia LaBeouf, whose rep as a serious artist took a  nosedive whenever another “Transformers” sequel clunked onto the screen, Mark Wahlberg had no such problem taking the lead in the fourth entry in the franchise. He easily balances his duties as both a strict single dad and a human recruit in the war against those big bad robots  in “Transformers: Age of Extinction.” 

While reviewers used to slam LaBeouf  -- and his irritating habit of yelling “No, no, no, no” whenever mayhem struck  --  they tended to cut the artist formerly known as Marky Mark some slack for his debut in the toy-shelf-inspired enterprise. As New York magazine critic David Edelstein succinctly noted, “Wahlberg does have one enormous asset: He’s not Shia LaBeouf. Also, I like seeing him in pretty much anything. Even when he’s not too sharp, he gives the movies some credibility.”

David O. Russell with Bale and Wahlberg
Russell with his "The Fighter" stars, Christian Bale and Mark Wahlberg

Interesting how the increasingly troubled LaBeouf hit a personal worst in public misbehavior last Thursday -- the day that the new “Transformers” hit theaters -- by disrupting a Broadway performance of "Cabaret" and getting arrested for disorderly conduct.     

Meanwhile, Wahlberg, chart-topping bad-boy rapper prone to public scuffles and Calvin Klein underwear model turned respected Oscar-nominated actor, emerged mostly unscathed from the critical pounding taken by “Age of Extinction.” Michael Bay’s metal-bashing marathon only helps matters, proving once again unstoppable in its attack on the weekend box office, with the best opening so far this year at $100 million.

Signature line: “I am a star. I'm a star, I'm a star, I'm a star. I am a big, bright, shining star. That's right.” – Wahlberg as dedicated porn star Dirk Diggler reciting lines to his own reflection while exposing his sizable manhood in 1997’s “Boogie Nights.” 

Career peaks: Wahlberg, 43, the youngest of nine children born to a working-class Boston-area family, struggled with a violent streak as a teen, serving 45 days in state prison in 1988 after being convicted of assault. In 1991, he followed older brother Donnie into showbiz as the headliner of Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch. When his music career started to flame out, he shifted into movies in 1994, taking supporting parts in “The Basketball Diaries” (1995) and as Reese Witherspoon’s crazed boyfriend in “Fear” (1996).

'Lone Survivor'
'Lone Survivor'

But Wahlberg was able expose his full potential onscreen as earnest, ambitious and well-endowed porn star Dirk Diggler in “Boogie Nights,” a role he won after Leonardo DiCaprio -- who turned down the part to do “Titanic” -- recommended him. Janet Maslin of The New York Times was clearly smitten, declaring him “the movie’s special gift” and abundantly praising his “captivating ingenuousness” and “terrifically appealing performance in this tricky role.”

Suddenly Wahlberg was a wanted man, this time for his acting abilities. His resume quickly fell into a pattern, split between paycheck jobs in action thrillers like “The Big Hit” (1998), “The Perfect Storm” (2000) and “The Italian Job” (2003) and more demanding fare, including his ongoing partnership with director David O. Russell in “Three Kings” (1999), “I Heart Huckabees” (2004) and “The Fighter” (2010). While he and the legendary Martin Scorsese had a somewhat combative relationship during the making of the mob drama “The Departed” (2006), Wahlberg rose to the next level of serious acting as a hardheaded cop and was rewarded with a supporting Oscar nomination. He also has proven adept at comedy, pairing well with Will Ferrell in the buddy-cop spoof “The Other Guys” (2010) and as a straight man to Seth MacFarlane’s potty-mouthed stuffed bear in “Ted” (2012) -- his highest domestic grosser ($218.9 million) until “Transformers 4” came along. 

Wahlberg is also a successful producer behind TV shows such as the HBO series “Entourage” (soon to be a movie) and films including 2013’s “Prisoners” and “Lone Survivor,” which he also starred in.   

This article is related to: Features, Career Watch, Mark Wahlberg, Transformers


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Thompson on Hollywood

Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.