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Every Mark Wahlberg Movie Is Perfect or Perfectly Terrible

Presenting a scientific guide to his performances

Ringer illustration
Ringer illustration

Have you ever seen The Corruptor? I just watched it on Wednesday evening — somehow it was the only Mark Wahlberg movie I’d never seen. (Note: When I say “somehow” I don’t mean, “I can’t believe I missed seeing this movie when it came out in 1999.” I mean, “I can’t believe I’ve seen every other Mark Wahlberg movie, smh.”) In The Corruptor, Wahlberg plays Danny Wallace, a rookie cop assigned to work in Chinatown alongside Nick Chen, a grizzled veteran cop who (A) heads up the department’s Asian Gang Unit, and (B) is tangled up in varying levels of corruption. It’s a bad movie, and the best bad scene happens 11 minutes in, while Wallace is setting up his work station in the area where Chen and two other police officers in the AGU are quartered.

This is what happens, and let me tell you that each one of these things just made me happier and happier as I watched them happen because I love corny action movies so much:

The Scene: Wahlberg’s Wallace sits in a medium-size room with Chen, Louise Deng, and Willy Ung. There’s just enough light sneaking through the blinds to make a bunch of interesting shadows.

New Line Cinema
New Line Cinema

The Setup: Deng, Ung, and Chen take turns staring at Wallace while he works. And guess what he’s doing? He’s fucking pinning pictures of criminals to a corkboard, hahaha.

Guess what else he’s doing? He’s putting on a pair of glasses so he can see his corkboard pictures better, hahaha. It’s the only time in the whole movie he wears glasses. (I promise I watched him earnestly put those glasses on four, five, six times in a row. It’s beautiful.)

New Line Cinema
New Line Cinema

The Action: They question Wallace about why a white cop would ever choose to work on the AGU. First, he tells them it’s because he wants to make detective faster, but that doesn’t sound noble enough, so then he tells them that he actually just wants to help Chinese immigrants, but then that sounds a little too much like he’s doing the white-savior thing, so then he tells them that he actually just wants to uphold the law and it doesn’t matter if he’s helping Chinese immigrants or not. And the whole time he’s talking, he’s doing that very gorgeous Mark Wahlberg Whisper Talk thing he does when he wants to sound very sincere. I love it.

Ung, a tertiary figure in the movie who seems to exist only to pester Wallace, responds by making a bunch of jokes about Wallace having an infatuation with Asian women. After allowing Ung to needle Wallace a bit, Chen joins in. He leans back in his chair, contempt oozing out of his ears, feet up on his desk. And then — I promise you this is 100 percent true — he tells Wallace: “You don’t change Chinatown.” Then there’s a second of silence. Then he finishes his thought: “… It changes you.” I woke my wife up and high-fived her when it happened because that was just such a goddamn perfect, terrible thing for him to say.

New Line Cinema
New Line Cinema

Wallace processes the thought, then, in his most heartfelt whisper voice, responds, “Well, I’m ready to give it a shot. That’s why I’m here, sir.” (I had an erection at this point.) Chen stares at him for a beat. Then he eats a tiny snack. Then he takes his feet off his desk and begins to sit up straight. “All right,” he says. “Don’t make plans tonight.” Wallace asks why. The camera cuts to Ung. He’s staring intently at Wallace.

“Cuz we’re going on a panty raid. Woo!”

End scene.

It’s perfect, in the worst possible way. Navigating this kind of scene seriously, and this kind of movie seriously, is a skill nobody has mastered as well as Wahlberg. I suspect that’s why I keep watching his movies, and why I will always watch whatever new one he makes and whatever old one happens to be on TV. And that includes this year’s forthcoming Deepwater Horizon and Patriots Day.

Every single movie in which Wahlberg is the star is: (1) Perfect, (2) Perfect in a Terrible Way, or (3) An Exact 50/50 Split of the Two. There are 29 movies that fit the prerequisite for being a “Mark Wahlberg movie.” Here’s a chart with all of them:

Some notes:

  • The hardest category to break into is “Perfect,” of course. Of the 29 movies, only six are Perfect, and of those six, three are controversial inclusions. The obvious ones: The Fighter, Three Kings, and Boogie Nights — the last one being the movie that will likely remain his most exhilarating, most brilliant performance forever. The controversial inclusions: Lone Survivor, Rock Star, and Pain & Gain. I’m always surprised when someone says they didn’t like Pain & Gain. It’s incredible. Anthony Mackie is fantastic, the Rock is fantastic, the story is fantastic, the bad guy is fantastic. And Mark Wahlberg, who is as fine an actor as there’s ever been when you’re looking for someone to play a part where the character has to be dumb but thinks he’s smart, is inspired. As far as I’m concerned, Pain & Gain is for sure the second-best Mark Wahlberg movie.
  • Saying something is “terrible in a perfect way” is entirely different than saying something is just “terrible.” Things that are terrible aren’t enjoyable. Things that are terrible in a perfect way are enjoyable, either genuinely or ironically. The Corruptor is terrible in a perfect way. If it’s on, you should watch it. Measure that up against a comparable movie from a comparable time like, say, Steven Seagal’s 1996 movie The Glimmer Man, where he played a cop alongside Keenen Ivory Wayans. That was just terrible. If that one’s on, throw your TV out of a window, and then throw your window out of another window.
  • This 50/50 category is the one that’s the most fun to talk about. Movies that fall there have parts that are absolutely perfect and also other parts that are absolutely perfect in a terrible way. The most apt example is Shooter, maybe the best Mark Wahlberg movie to have on in the background while you work on something else. Mark Wahlberg plays a retired sniper who gets framed for assassinating the president. There’s a part where he makes an IV drip for himself in a gas station using supplies he got from the store (he uses an air-pump needle for the needle) and another part where it’s revealed that Danny Glover is one of the bad guys and he says, “You got nothing on me,” and then Glover points his finger at a guy and says, “Call the joint chief.” It ends with Wahlberg shooting everyone, and I’m just going to toss this idea out there, but I can’t think of a single action movie that wouldn’t be at least 15 percent better if it ended with Mark Wahlberg shooting everyone. I am all the way in favor of the Wahlbergization of movies.
  • The most surprising placement here is The Happening, a movie I’m guessing M. Night Shyamalan sold to the movie studio by saying, “A bunch of people are going to kill themselves in crazy ways,” and then when they asked what the ending was going to be, he just said, “Oh. Umm. I’m not sure. I haven’t got that far in the script yet. That shit’s just gonna happ — … OH FUUUUUUUU. Let’s call it The Happening.” I watched, I think, something like 12 Mark Wahlberg movies over four days while I was working on this. One of them was The Happening. It’s more fun than I remembered, and Wahlberg is as good as he’s allowed to be in it. I mean, sure, it’s a bad movie, but it’s also kind of great, even though it’s so bad. But really it’s only so bad because of the ending, which is very bad.
  • Any Mark Wahlberg movie where he plays a police officer will, invariably, end up in the 50/50 category. That’s just how it goes. Same goes for any movie he’s in with Joaquin Phoenix.
  • It makes me happy that Mark Wahlberg has a gigantic head because that means there’s so much more of his face, and he has a great face, so I’m glad that we get as much of it as possible. It’s really a perfect face. A very interesting face. It’s a beautiful face, but also a face valuable beyond its own beauty, which isn’t always the case. It can do so many things. It can be weary and frustrated, like in The Fighter, but particularly during the MTV Girl scene. It can be hurt, like when his mom kept calling him stupid in Boogie Nights. And it can be completely heartbroken, like when his mom ripped the posters off his wall in Boogie Nights. It can be overjoyed, like in Rock Star when he did that first photo shoot after he’d won the role of lead singer for Steel Dragon. It can be dismissive while being lovable (The Departed) and dismissive while being loathsome (The Gambler). It can be righteous as if it’s unaware of the irony of being righteous while being a criminal (Four Brothers), and it can be righteous as if it’s aware of the irony of being righteous while being a criminal (The Italian Job). It can be hopeful but cautious (Invincible), inquisitive (The Happening), and curious (most of The Other Guys). It can be innocent while actually being guilty (Three Kings) and guilty while actually being guilty (Pain & Gain). It can be so many different versions of stoic (Shooter, Contraband, Max Payne), and every single version of intimidating (at least one scene in every one of his movies, the most overt moment being the door scene in Fear).
  • A real question: Do you think The Departed (not listed here because it’s officially “a Leonardo DiCaprio movie”) would’ve been better, the same, or worse if Wahlberg and Leo swapped roles? I think it’d end up destroying the whole movie, and not just because I don’t think Wahlberg can summon that same sort of terrified mania that DiCaprio can, but also because I don’t know that DiCaprio could ever be as bloated and contemptuous as Wahlberg was as Det. Sgt. Sean Dignam. We’ll never know for sure.