Let’s face some facts: Mark Wahlberg has never quite gotten the respect that he deserves. Once derided as a (not very good) rapper merely playing at trying to break into movies, the artist formerly known as Marky Mark quickly proved his talent and magnetism in the second half of the 1990s by appearing in a series of diverse hits (Fear, Boogie Nights, Three Kings). Even so, he continued to be thought of by some as a mildly talented hunk who’d just lucked out.
Cut to two decades later, and Wahlberg is not just one of the biggest stars in Hollywood, but possibly the most careful: He’s put together a filmography that speaks not just to his abilities but also his obsessions, playing sincere, working-class professionals whose quiet demeanour masks depths of heroism and achievement. His latest, the true-life disaster tale Deepwater Horizon, very much fits into that mold.
Meanwhile, people keep underestimating both his talents and his drawing power. Sure, he might not have the range of a typical “great actor”; he’s not going to be playing Abraham Lincoln anytime soon. But like all great movie stars, Wahlberg seems to understand his own limitations, and seeks out parts that play to his strengths and co-stars that complement his style (think Denzel Washington, Christian Bale, Joaquin Phoenix, or, um, Will Ferrell). Has he had his share of stinkers? Boy, has he! But look over the movies he’s made, and you might find yourself amazed at how much terrific work he’s done over the course of his career. Here are all of Mark Wahlberg’s performances, ranked from worst to best. (Keep in mind we’re ranking the performances, and not necessarily the films – if he’s great in a less-than-stellar movie, you’ll see if near the top, and vice versa.)
38. ‘The Departed’
Leave it to Martin Scorsese to find the perfect part for Wahlberg’s unique blend of muted aggression and working-class contempt. With his rat-tat-tat delivery, his incessant ball-busting, his absolute and total suspicion of everybody and everything, Wahlberg nearly walked away with the director’s star-studded, Oscar-winning gangster epic. Meet the no-nonsense staff sergeant Dignam, who relishes his pissy interactions with Leonardo DiCaprio’s undercover officer Billy Costigan, Alec Baldwin’s department go-to guy and anyone else who questions him (asked who he is by an incompetent underling, he shoots back, “I’m the guy who does his job. You must be the other guy.”). These foul-mouthed tirades are a perfect fit for the actor. He was nominated for an Oscar for the part; frankly, he deserved to win.
37. ‘Boogie Nights’
Behold, the final nail in Marky Mark’s coffin, and ground zero for the Wahlberg we know today – it’s still his single best lead performance. Paul Thomas Anderson’s delirious epic of the porn industry in the Seventies and Eighties has the structure of A Star is Born, and as our generously-hung hero Eddie Adams becomes skin-flick stud Dirk Diggler, Wahlberg gets to put the full range of his talents to good use. His shyness and physicality eventually blossom into earnest grandiosity and peacocking aggression; don’t even get us started on his close-up during the “Sister Christian” sequence, when he conveys the sense of giving up and giving in with one single, draining facial expression. A comedy, a drama, a coming-of-age movie (no pun intended), an epic, a spoof, a tragedy…this is a film of many moods and modes, and Mark Wahlberg nails every single one of them.
36. ‘Three Kings’
Our man of the hour is the heart and soul of David O. Russell’s masterful, bitter action comedy about a group of American soldiers trying to make off with Saddam Hussein’s bullion during the first Gulf War. His Sgt. Troy Barlow is a dim, gung-ho patriot whose matter-of-fact acceptance of war is challenged when he finds himself tortured, wounded, and faced with the consequences of his country’s actions. George Clooney might be the ostensible star of the film, but Wahlberg’s journey is the one that mirrors the movie’s emotional trajectory. It all begins with him killing a man in cold blood. By the end, we are totally gripped and moved by his ordeal as he learns to care about people he once thought of as barely human.
35. ‘The Other Guys’
An absurdly funny buddy comedy, this. Wahlberg is a small tornado of fury, playing a disgraced, loose-cannon cop who’s forced to partner up with nerdy paper-pusher Will Ferrell on a case after two superstar fellow officers (played by The Rock and Samuel L. Jackson) buy it on the job. In their first pairing, the two actors balance out each other very well, in part because each takes his shtick to extremes. Ferrell is surreally geeky to the max; Wahlberg goes to 11 with the pent-up rage and earnest ambition. The actor always had a talent for comedy, but watching him go broad and big with such abandon here is a real joy.
34. ‘The Fighter’
Wahlberg gives one of his greatest performances in David O. Russell’s boxing drama as Micky Ward, the true-life has-been who got an unlikely chance at a light welterweight title. Here, he finds an ideal counterpart in Christian Bale, who won an Oscar for his strung-out turn as Mickey’s crack-addict brother and trainer Dicky. As a result, Wahlberg’s gentle performance as the retiring, fearful palooka speaks to a lifetime of living in his flamboyant brother’s shadow. It’s touching to watch him as he tries to shake off his family’s toxic influence while also remaining loyal to his roots. This is currently the high point of Wahlberg’s grand pantheon of working-class achievers – and frankly, it’s hard to think that, categorically, he’ll ever top his turn.
33. ‘We Own the Night’
James Gray’s Eighties-set crime epic is a movie pits Joaquin Phoenix’s hedonistic, troubled nightclub impresario against Wahlberg’s angry, straight-arrow cop brother. And once again, the actor shines when he’s put against a performer of competing energies. In many ways, this dynamic expands and improves upon the one from the previous Wahlberg-Phoenix-Gray collaboration, The Yards. By putting righteous anger behind Wahlberg’s dedication to the law, the film goes beyond mere indie crime drama and approaches the Shakespearean.
32. ‘I Heart Huckabees’
How the hell does one even describe David O. Russell’s rambling philosophical fantasy-cum-satire-cum-drama? Or, for that matter, Wahlberg’s bizarre, wonderful role in it? While Jason Schwarzman’s environmentalist schlemiel looks into his life courtesy of two existential detectives (don’t ask), our man plays an enlightened, activist firefighter who teams up and later betrays – sort of – the film’s neurotic lead. Opinion is divided on this strange movie, but almost everyone agrees that Wahlberg’s presence in it is quite special. By keeping his performance light and casual, he makes the bizarre, philosophical meandering of his lines work. Somehow, by not taking the movie too seriously, he helps to beautifully sell it.
Here’s the creepy-dreamy boyfriend-stalker role that helped turn Wahlberg into a star. With his fixed, narrow eyes, and his half smile, we can tell right from the get-go that his obsessed b.f. David McCall is no good. But we also can’t help but be drawn in by him, and we can understand how Reese Witherspoon’s daddy’s girl would fall for him. He’s handsome, sexy, and dangerous. The initial uncertainty over just how dangerous he is, and the growing menace of his intentions, help build suspense. This is a sleazy, ludicrous Nineties thriller par excellence – and damned if the two talented young leads guarantee that it endures.
30. ‘Pain & Gain’
Michael Bay’s garish crime comedy-epic about a trio of dimwitted body builders who attempt to kidnap/extort a wealthy client is meant to be a satirical dissection of the American Dream. That the film occasionally achieves its goals is largely thanks to the efforts of Wahlberg, as the roided-up, ex-con personal trainer who comes up with this harebrained scheme. His seemingly limitless energy and capacity for self-delusion are both grotesque and infectious. This man is part All-American positive-thinker, part zonked-out psycho. The star nails it.
There’s Alpha Male Mark Wahlberg, and then there’s Shrinking Violet Mark Wahlberg. The latter can often spell death for a film – especially an action thriller – but occasionally, a director finds a way to make that kind of low-boiling energy work to a film’s advantage. Here, the actor’s New Orleans family man who has given up the thievery business and wouldn’t you know it, he’s forced to take one last job. Director Baltasar Kormakur uses Wahlberg’s quiet tension to build both suspense and pathos. The actor is a reluctant hero here, and he knows that things are going to go off the rails. His regret and muted rage are often transfixing.
This Disney sports drama (which would make for a pretty good double feature with Rock Star, now that we think about it) is about real-life Philadelphia Eagles legend Vince Papale, a part-time bartender who in 1975 at the age of 31 made the team off open tryouts. It takes some liberties with the truth, but it’s surprisingly grim: Philly was suffering some hard times in the mid-1970s, and the film’s working-class milieu is effectively drab and despairing. It also works with Wahlberg’s tendency to underplay his emotions: He’s effective here as a guy who doesn’t really believe he’ll ever amount to anything, and keeps his thoughts to himself. Thanks to him, when Papale’s big moment comes, the cumulative power of all those bottled-up emotions is really something.
27. ‘Rock Star’
Based loosely on the true-life story of Tim “Ripper” Owens, a Judas Priest cover band singer who got hired to be frontman for the real Judas Priest, this metal-fueled movie starts off as comic fantasy, then becomes something more dramatic. Playing Chris Cole, a variation on Owens who gets hired to sing for fictional rock gods Steel Dragon, Wahlberg gets to put his pop-star boldness and magnetism to good use, sprinting and bounding all over the stage; that he also gets to play the type of working-class underdog he loves so much is a bonus. The film is too all over the place tonally to work, but man, the star is aces.
26. ‘2 Guns’
Wahlberg teams up with Denzel Washington as a pair of crooks who are secretly both working for the DEA, and Naval intelligence, respectively. But when they’re double-crossed by their superiors, they find themselves increasingly, and reluctantly dependent on each other. This is a terrific example of how Wahlberg is at his best when he’s got someone to play off – in this case, Washington’s grizzled, bitter agent, who makes an excellent foil for his younger co-star’s loose-cannon antics. Very underrated.
25. ‘The Basketball Diaries’
This film adaptation of Jim Carroll’s memoir of high school basketball glory and teenage drug addiction was one of Leonardo DiCaprio’s key early roles. But to many, it was Mark Wahlberg – then still known prinmarily as rapper Marky Mark – who leapt off the screen. While Leo’s character descends into misery and mortification, not to mention pseudo-Brando-esque histrionics, Wahlberg’s intensity feels a lot more authentic. Watching this movie at the time, many viewers could immediately sense that the young rapper was on his way to movie stardom.
24. ‘Lone Survivor’
Peter Berg’s hit film about a SEAL team mission in Afghanistan that went catastrophically wrong isn’t concerned so much with character as it is with the endurance and devastation of the human body in combat. As Marcus Luttrell, the one soldier who survived, Wahlberg is appropriately burly and chummy in early scenes. But he also maintains an edge of quiet observation. In the film’s later scenes, as his wounded character gets more and more desperate, the actor brings an appropriate level of anxiety. Without his sincere, physical performance, it would never have worked.
23. ‘Renaissance Man’
When Wahlberg’s agent informed him that director Penny Marshall wanted him to read for a part in this Danny DeVito military comedy, the actor’s reply was: “Wait, you mean Laverne?!?” In his first semi-substantial screen role, Wahlberg plays a dim, pissy Southern boy with a chip on his shoulder. He can’t do an accent, but he’s actually pretty good at conveying his character’s contempt for the others; we get the fact that this guy doesn’t play well with anybody around him. It’s the kind of sentimental comedy they used to make in the Nineties, where characters could be complex, interesting and funny – and the former musician more than holds his own.
22. ‘Daddy’s Home’
Will Ferrell finds his attempts to endear himself to his wife’s kids undone when their real dad shows up. Of course, said dad is a studly, globe-hopping badass who goes on mysterious missions “for his country,” and Wahlberg is perfectly cast. (In fact, you could even think of his role as an extension of his bit part in the aforementioned Date Night.) It can’t compare to Ferrell and Wahlberg’s earlier collaboration, The Other Guys – but the clear fun the two stars have undercutting one another makes it all worthwhile.
21. ‘Date Night’
Wahlberg only has a cameo in this Tina Fey-Steve Carrell rom-com about a boring, married couple whose night on the town goes awry, but he certainly makes the most of it. As a perpetually shirtless, dashing, mysterious “security expert” who takes time out from a busy night of having sex with beautiful, mysterious Gal Gadot, he both indulges in and pokes fun at his macho hero persona. The contrast with the film’s hapless, mousy leads is delightful – as is his unlikely crush on Fey’s character.
20. ‘The Perfect Storm’
This 2000 disaster movie, based on Sebastian Junger’s non-fiction book about the deadly, epic weather event that hit the Northeast in 1991, had the misfortune of coming not long after Titanic. Which meant that the film couldn’t just be an effectively harrowing flick about a group of Gloucester fishermen fighting for their lives…it also had to be a love story. And Wahlberg, as the young, wide-eyed fisherman hoping to score some money so he can marry his girlfriend, had to bear the brunt of the clunky romantic lines. But as the least experienced member of the no-nonsense, hearty crew of the Andrea Gail (captained by one George Clooney), the actor is certainly appealing; you feel for his predicament, and he essentially anchors the movie.
Before he became Mark Wahlberg A-List Movie Star, he co-starred with Bill Paxton in this 1997 indie drama about a young man who reconnects with his Irish Traveler family and partners up with his con-man uncle. As they drive around bilking unsuspecting, impoverished North Carolinians of their money, the two men bond. It’s an atmospheric drama (directed by Jack N. Green, Clint Eastwood’s longtime cinematographer) and Wahlberg’s casualness contrasts nicely with Paxton’s charming, garrulous trickster. Even then, you could tell there was something happening on screen with this kid.
18. ‘The Yards’
Director James Gray’s moody crime drama, about a young ex-con who struggles not to be drawn into the corrupt ways of his uncle’s shady train empire, is a messy, beautiful movie – an unusually melancholy gangster flick. Wahlberg is initially quite touching, his voice reduced to such a wounded whisper that you may find yourself leaning in to hear his lines. He eventually overdoes the morose, submerged protagonist bit; he starts off conflicted, but winds up looking confounded. The actor’s later collaboration with Gray, We Own the Night,would prove to be infinitely more successful.
17. ‘The Italian Job’
This loose remake of the Michael Caine heist classic is engaging, has elaborate (and ridiculous) set pieces, colorful characters, and a bubbly sense of fun. So why is this not higher up in the list, you ask? As a master-thief out to avenge his old partner’s death and steal back a huge stash of gold, Wahlberg gives what can only be described as an odd performance. He brings out the charm quite nicely in the film’s first half; once the action starts, he seems surprisingly lost. This guy doesn’t seem like he might pull off one of the most complicated cinematic heists ever. Of course, the fact he’s been thrust into a leadership role is part of the plot … so maybe the disconnect is intentional.
16. ‘Four Brothers’
Wahlberg is the temperamental, troubled leader of a quartet of adopted brothers who exact revenge when their angelic mother is randomly killed; naturally, they discover that there’s more to the situation than they first realised. Based on John Wayne’s 1965 Western The Sons of Katie Elder, this is the kind of movie in which our heroes find themselves facing off against both cops and criminals. Wahlberg’s anger is convincing – you can sense the years of resentment and rejection that have built up, and you can see how this guy can easily get in trouble. You just wish he’d inject more energy into the movie once the story starts to lag.
As a disillusioned ex-sniper framed for an assassination attempt on the American President’s life, Wahlberg does his usual broody bit here. His terse performance fits the film’s heady atmosphere of paranoia to a tee – though if there’s one thing Mark Wahlberg absolutely cannot do, it’s play a character who is patient. You can maybe imagine him moving to a remote location in disillusionment, but you can’t really imagine him biding his time as a careful, composed, calculating sharpshooter.
Seth MacFarlane’s hit foulmouthed-teddy-bear movie should probably have cast Adam Sandler as an overgrown, stunted man-child who continues to be best friends with a chatty, perverted teddy bear. And while Wahlberg can often play shy, retiring types, he’s not entirely convincing here as a pothead, loser lay-about. That said, the gaping wonderment on his character’s face when he meets Sam Jones, the star of his favorite movie Flash Gordon, remains one of his greatest moments. And no living actor can fistfight a two-foot stuffed animal with more brute panache.
13. ‘The Gambler’
Wahlberg as a compulsive, high-stakes gambler? Sure, we’ll bite. Wahlberg as a failed novelist and take-no-prisoners literature professor? Not so much. Based on a 1974 movie starring James Caan, this dour drama doesn’t very hard to make the opposite poles of this conflicted, contradictory character work. Worse, the star doesn’t seem at ease ranting about Shakespeare, class issues and artistic achievement; he delivers them too quickly, like he’s trying to cover for not knowing what he’s talking about. The actor fares a lot better, however, with the more elemental, desperate side of the character, especially when he’s being squeezed by multiple loan sharks. Still, once the classroom scenes kick in, all bets are off.
12. ‘Transformers: Age of Extinction’
Michael Bay’s fourth Transformers movie is far from the director’s worst (that’d be the second Transformers movie, FYI), but come on: Mark Wahlberg as a scrappy inventor from Texas? The star was a newcomer to the series, essentially replacing the troubled Shia LaBeouf in the ordinary-guy-who-befriends-the-Autobots part. But LaBeouf’s character was an anxious geek. Wahlberg, on the other hand, is a grown man, and he isn’t really called on to do much; these movies were already post-human by this point. Really, he’s just there to move the plot along and hold things together just long enough to get to the giant-robots-fighting-each-other part. It’s not a bad performance; just a completely anonymous one.
11. ‘Broken City’
A surprisingly ambitious crime thriller — you can tell it wants to be a modern-day Chinatown — finds Wahlberg playing a cop who left the force after a questionable shooting. He’s now working as a small time private eye when the city’s corrupt mayor (Russell Crowe) hires him to spy on his wife. The protagonist is likable enough, but it’s hard to buy the actor as an investigator – the role requires some subtlety, as well as a slightly weasely quality, that Wahlberg simply does not possess. In other words, he’s no Jack Nicholson.
10. ‘The Lovely Bones’
Nobody got out entirely clean from this Peter Jackson misfire (based on the best-selling novel) about a young girl who’s brutally murdered, then watches from an idyllic afterlife as her loved ones try to piece together her fate. As the mourning father, Wahlberg wasn’t actually given all that much to do – his performance is mostly a quiet, physical one. But though there are moments when he makes the character’s grief palpable, he’s ill at ease in an underbaked part. There were better angry-dad roles down the pike.
9. ‘The Truth About Charlie’
It’s been said that Will Smith’s last-minute dropping out from this updating of the classic spy-romance Charade was what prompted director Jonathan Demme to turn the movie into a devil-may-care, pseudo-experimental love letter to Paris. Even so, Wahlberg’s glum, befuddled performance is a poor replacement. He’s supposed to be an enigmatic, charismatic hero here: a dashing, dangerous figure whose intentions always remain unclear. But mysterious is not the actor’s strong suit. He himself seems more confused by his actions than anybody else in the film.
Our man is only in this 2015 big-screen of the HBO series for a few seconds. But he executive produced the show it’s based on, and the brotastic shenanigans of fictional movie star Vincent Chase (Adrian Grenier) and his pals were apparently based on Wahlberg and his crew to begin with. In other words, he’s spiritually all over this movie. His Markness briefly shows up as himself, even poking fun at some of his recent roles (he allows himself to get grief about appearing in Ted 2). It’s also clear that he’s having fun watching his fictional alter-ego. Imagine that: Mark Wahlberg, Benevolent Deity of the EntourageFranchise.
7. ‘The Corruptor’
An earnest white cop (guess who?) joins gruff hotshot Chow Yun-fat in investigating the gangs of Chinatown. The fireworks between the possibly corrupt veteran and the by-the-book tenderfoot would be fun, were the movie not more interested in stylised, over-the-top shootouts and explosions than exploring these two characters. We won’t tell you what the twist is, but know that there is one, and that it’s not entirely unpredictable. Still, even when the narrative circumstances change, the actor seems out of his element.
To be fair, Wahlberg steals the show with his extended cameo as a preening, fast-talking Hollywood producer (which could easily be modeled on himself) in this bizarre, symbolic macho art-drama. The thing is, it’s not really a show worth stealing. Garrett Hedlund is a brooding filmmaker having an existential crisis; Oscar Isaac is the mysterious drifter with whom he crosses paths and talks literature and philosophy. And even though Wahlberg’s brief turn is a welcome respite, it feels so calculated to inject energy into this testosterone-laden thriller that it leaves a strange aftertaste. Plus it’s hard to believe the pseudo-poetic dialogue was written by none other than William Monahan, whose screenplay for The Departed gave Wahlberg one of his greatest roles. (See elsewhere on this list.)
5. ‘Ted 2’
For this second, lesser instalment of Seth MacFarlane’s profane-talking-teddy-bear movie, Wahlberg reprises his role as John, the stoner best friend of our everyone’s favorite sentient furball. His performance, like so much of the rest of the movie, is pretty much phoned in – except, that is, when he’s being humiliated, like the bit where he winds up covered in sperm after a hospital heist gone wrong. (Watch at your own peril.) Wahlberg is a solid comic actor, and a good sport, but this is one of those films where the laziness of the gags reflects poorly on the performers as well; they aim for charm, and wind up with smarm.
4. ‘Max Payne’
In this overproduced, violent adaptation of the hit video game series, Wahlberg is a haunted cop (he plays haunted cops often) mourning the loss of his wife and child, all while slowly doing battle against what appears to be a demonic plague taking over the city. The actor really can’t do much with such an underwritten part – he doesn’t even get that many lines, and the film somehow doesn’t take advantage of his physicality or his charm. So, he just broods. For two straight hours. Game over.
3. ‘Planet of the Apes’
Tim Burton’s remake of the Charlton Heston v. Damned Dirty Apes classic isn’t quite as awful as its reputation would suggest. But Wahlberg is comically miscast as an astronaut stranded on a mysterious planet run by hyper-intelligent primates. His disgusted, quizzical expressions are certainly on-point; that’s probably because he’s wondering what the hell he’s doing in this curiously half-hearted blockbuster. Things really get stupid when our hero has to give a rousing speech to the forces of good in their climactic face-off with the apes. If he’s our last hope, humankind is screwed.
2. ‘The Big Hit’
This was actually one of the actor’s early hits, that helped cement his status as a star – which doesn’t stop this thing from being atrocious and offensive. Wahlberg is the polite, unassuming head of a group of hired killers who decide to take on a kidnapping job, only for it to go horrendously wrong. This is a movie that starts with our hero politely disposing of the body of a dead gangster in his mistress’s house, and then shifts to him trying to keep his fiancé’s (extremely) Jewish parents from discovering that he has a schoolgirl tied up in the garage. If the action were interesting, or the humor funny, it might have worked. And Wahlberg’s attempts to portray a naïve hit man with a heart of gold come off as totally insincere – and not in an intentional, meta way, either.
1. ‘The Happening’
Director M. Night Shyamalan’s eco-horror thriller – in which nature fights back against humanity by releasing a deadly toxin that starts causing mass suicides – might be the worst film of his career. But it totally didn’t need to be: The concept, while ridiculous, is also unnerving (in an absurdist, Japanese-horror kind of way) and the film actually has some beautifully tense set pieces. Unfortunately, it also has Wahlberg as a high-school science teacher, delivering perplexed stares and hilariously stilted line readings so catastrophic that at times you wonder if this is meant to be a parody. It’s a true low-point: Imagine literally anyone else in the lead and the film instantly improves. (Okay, maybe not.)