There was a time when the idea of Mark Wahlberg becoming an actor was considered a joke. This was “Marky Mark” Wahlberg, after all. He was a kid who willingly spent time with people who called themselves “The Funky Bunch.” Like most musicians-turned-actors, audiences expected Wahlberg’s on-screen career to be a string of novelty appearances in mostly forgettable films, a la Vanilla Ice and Busta Rhymes.
Cut to the 21st century, in which Mark Wahlberg is now a respected leading man and an Oscar-nominated actor and producer. He’s starred in enormously successful blockbuster movies as well as truly fascinating independents, some of which rank among the best films of the past two decades. And yes, some of his movies are also absolute crap.
He’s a prolific leading man, with a long list of films that are currently available on instant streaming services. This week on Now Streaming we’re mixing it up a bit to take a look at the five best Mark Wahlberg movies that are currently available for no added cost on Netflix, Amazon Instant and Hulu, as well as the best Mark Wahlberg movie that can only be found on DVD.
Pain & Gain (Netflix / Amazon Instant)
Michael Bay took a break from the explosive and annoying Transformers movies to make, essentially, a Coen Bros. film. Pain & Gain is the mostly true story of a truly bizarre kidnapping, in which a trio of body builders (Mark Wahlberg, Anthony Mackie and Dwayne Johnson) take a rich a-hole hostage, steal his money and try to kill him. Since they’re all idiots, it goes horribly awry.
Emphasis on the word “horribly.” Pain & Gain is a brutal film, violent and violently visualized. Michael Bay’s movies are often an assault on the senses, and lowering his usual budget by almost 90% didn’t change his style one bit. At least with Pain & Gain he’s got a great cast and something to say about the fallacy of the American dream. But for all his art house ambitions, Pain & Gain is not a complex movie, it’s just a chaotic one. Fortunately the chaos is very fun to watch.
Traveler (Hulu Plus)
Released the same year as Boogie Nights, and almost completely ignored, Traveler is the sort of quiet drama that sprang up from the 1990s independent cinema boom. It’s also one of the few con artist movies that doesn’t feel like it’s all just a set up for a big climactic reveal. Mark Wahlberg plays a young former member of a con artist tribe who returns to the fold after the death of his father, and winds up apprenticing under Bill Paxton, who soon falls for a woman he’s supposed to be grifting.
Jack N. Green directed Traveler in the middle of a very successful cinematography career, shooting high profile films like Unforgiven, Twister and The 40-Year-Old Virgin. Unlike many directors of photography-turned-directors, he doesn’t focus on the images, he focuses on the people within them. Traveler may not make a huge impression but it makes a welcome one, with strong performances and a refreshing look at the confidence game as a regular gig.
Four Brothers (Netflix)
John Singleton’s loose remake of The Sons of Katie Elder stars Mark Wahlberg, Tyrese Gibson, Andre Benjamin and Garrett Hedlund as foster brothers who reunite when their mother is murdered in what appears to be a random robbery. Of course, there’s much more to it than that, and they wind up involved in a conspiracy involving a slick, memorable villain played by future Oscar nominee Chiwetel Ejiofor (who was, at the time, a relative unknown).
Four Brothers sounds like a straight-up crime thriller, but John Singleton doesn’t pace it that way. This is a drama about four very different men who came from the exact same place, and how they reacclimatize to each other after the only thing that connected them goes away. Wahlberg steals a lot of scenes here – especially on the basketball court, where he hijacks the ball until the spectators answer his questions – but the whole ensemble does excellent work. Four Brothers occasionally peaks into action territory but even the valleys are interesting enough to wander through, thanks to all this great company.
The Italian Job (Netflix)
It is a common misconception that remakes have to be as good or better than the original to be worth making in the first place. One great counterargument is F. Gary Gray’s The Italian Job, which turns Peter Collinson’s sexy, comical 1969 heist classic into a conventional but very effective heist thriller with a dynamite ensemble cast.
Mark Wahlberg leads a team of ne’er-do-wells on a mission of revenge after one of their own – Edward Norton, who only appeared in the film because he was under contract – kills their mentor, played by Donald Sutherland (who dies in just about everything). Wahlberg teams up with Jason Statham, Seth Green, Mos Def and Charlize Theron in a daring heist involving VW Mini-Coopers which doesn’t quite stand up to the ingenuity of the previous film, but is pretty clever in its own right.
The Italian Job remake may be fluff, but it’s solid fluff (if that makes any sense). It’s a fun film that works exactly the way it’s supposed to, and entertains from start to finish.
Three Kings (Netflix)
Before he became an Oscar darling, director David O. Russell was an iconoclast who made films about falling in love with your own mother or, in Three Kings, a quartet of soldiers who go AWOL at the end of the Persian Gulf War to steal Kuwaiti gold. Fealty to the national cause was not on the agenda. Three Kings is about selfishness, irresponsibility and the effects those attitudes have on the world around us.
George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg, Ice Cube and future Oscar-winning filmmaker Spike Jonze (Her) co-star in what could easily have become a contemporary riff on Kelly’s Heroes (it’s certainly funny enough), but Russell’s film segues into serious political territory, albeit on a smallish level. What begins as a quirky heist film turns into a meaningful examination of how immature bastards grow into socially conscious people. All it takes is one bravura scene in which Wahlberg gets tortured into considering a different point of view; it’s the film’s signature and most daring moment, and Wahlberg plays it beautifully.
Not Streaming: The Basketball Diaries
You may have noticed that a lot of great Mark Wahlberg movies aren’t on the above list. That’s because many of his best movies (Boogie Nights, The Fighter, I Heart Huckabees, The Departed, etc.) are only available for an additional rental fee on services like Amazon Prime. But one film that doesn’t appear on any of the instant streaming services – that we have access to, at any rate – is also one of the first films to make critics and audiences start considering Wahlberg as a real actor: The Basketball Diaries.
Based on the autobiography of poet Jim Carroll, The Basketball Diaries stars Leonardo DiCaprio as a young man who spirals out of control and into drug addiction. Mark Wahlberg co-stars as one of Carroll’s tight-knit circle of friends (although he looks a bit old for the part). The Basketball Diaries was one of many controversial films about youthful drug addiction, violence and/or sexual voraciousness in the 1990s. Although it didn’t develop the same longstanding reputation as some of its contemporaries (see also: Kids, Trainspotting, Funny Games), it’s an impassioned, well-acted movie that walks face first into some very dark places. It’s a pity that The Basketball Diaries isn’t easier for new audiences to find.