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

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

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.”

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).

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.   

Biggest assets: Unlike someone like Tom Cruise, whose onscreen appearances nowadays are often burdened by his personal baggage, Wahlberg has learned to embrace his rocky past and use it to his advantage. He wears his street-cred like a badge, has a bit of an underdog edge beneath his tough yet handsome exterior (not unlike old-timey movie star John Garfield) and can mix it up with the other guys in male-heavy ensembles such as “The Departed” and “Pain & Gain.” 

He also is physical enough to play athletes like his boxer in “The Fighter” along with action heroes who don’t take themselves too seriously. He also possesses business savvy, as his record as a producer shows. Wahlberg is never going to be Daniel Day-Lewis when it comes to galvanizing performances but he is self-aware enough to know his strengths and play to them.

Awards attention: Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for “The Departed” and a best-picture nomination as producer of “The Fighter.”

Biggest misfires: “The Happening” (2008) did not happen for Wahlberg, but filmmaker M. Night Shyamalan bore most of the blame. Not enough people saw “The Truth About Charlie” (2002), a misguided remake of “Charade,” to do the actor much harm.  Instead, it was his deadly dull performance in another remake, Tim Burton’s “Planet of the Apes” (2001), that probably ranks as his worse. As Roger Ebert described his take on the astronaut originally played by Charlton Heston: “A limited and narrow person with little imagination.”

Biggest problems: Not many at this point, as long as Wahlberg keeps choosing well and occasionally working with filmmakers who challenge him. Although, he is at an awkward-ish age where he finds himself playing fathers more and the alpha hunk less. He does maintain a healthy attitude about his longevity: “I’ve always looked at my career as an athlete would look at his.  Some don’t know when to walk away, but the smart ones do.” 

Gossip fodder: Nothing like his rap-era shenanigans, which included dedicating his 1992 memoir to his penis and clashing with Madonna and her entourage. Although he did cause brouhaha when his old-school braggadocio got the better of him during a 2012 interview when he said that he had almost flown on Flight 93 on Sept. 11, 2011. Wahlberg issued an apology to the relatives of crash victims for making such statements as, “If I was on that plane with my kids, it wouldn’t have gone down like it did.” He is a proud family man who has four children, ages four to ten, with model Rhea Durham, his wife since 2009.

Career advice: Money-wise, Wahlberg is doing fine since he hooked his wagon to the “Transformers” franchise. The question is, where will he find another challenging role like the one in “The Departed”?

What’s next? That opportunity to push himself could come in the form of next year’s “The Gambler,” based on the 1974 film starring James Caan and due next year. Although Wahlberg’s track record with remakes is iffy at best, he does show dedication after pulling a McConaughey by losing 61 pounds to play a literary prof whose gambling addiction threatens to ruin his life.  A positive sign: The script is by “The Departed’s” Oscar-winning William Monahan.

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