It can be difficult to find a through-line in Mark Wahlberg’s career. He has been a serious actor. He has been a comedy star. He has been an action hero. (He has then been an action hero again and again.) He has asked you to say hello to your mother for him. In a way, we’ll still always think of him as Vince from Entourage. But what ties it all together? His buddies!
Wahlberg almost always has a friend, or a partner, or a sidekick, or an antagonist for whom he eventually ends up with a begrudging respect. He almost never is the solo lead in a movie, and even when he is, it’s usually in a Peter Berg flick, in which he is really just a supporting character to an oil-rig explosion or a marathon bombing. Wahlberg always has a buddy!
With the introduction of a new buddy in Tom Holland in this week’s Uncharted, we decided to rank Wahlberg’s best cinematic buddies. And maybe he has more range than we give him credit for: It’s not every actor who can say they’ve shared the screen with Denzel Washington, a teddy bear, and trees — although, sadly, not in the same film.
14. Trees (The Happening)
The trees are swaying ominously — prepare for the impending environmental onslaught! The trees … the trees! It’s not necessarily Wahlberg’s fault that M. Night Shyamalan’s climate thriller — in which the villain is … wind — is so ridiculous and that he consistently looks so ridiculous in it; there aren’t many actors who would have come out of this deeply misguided project unscathed. But Wahlberg is particularly adrift here. Seeing him lost and bewildered about what exactly is supposed to be going on here is, well — it’s difficult to watch. Maybe Wahlberg and the trees were just never going to be friends. Perhaps a goat is a better bet. What up, goat?
13. Winston Duke (Spenser Confidential)
Wahlberg has made several films with director Peter Berg, but this Netflix B-movie is the dullest, finding the star portraying Robert B. Parker’s semi-iconic private eye who has just been let out of jail and who is paired with another ex-con (Winston Duke) to solve a series of murders. Duke, a fine actor from Black Panther and Nine Days, gets very little to do in Spenser Confidential, which tries (and fails) to be a buddy comedy and a whodunit and a midrange action flick. Mostly, it feels like so many Netflix productions that seem dreamed up by an algorithm and then presented to undemanding viewers who will mindlessly watch them.
12. Denzel Washington (2 Guns)
Although a modest hit, 2 Guns is probably not going to be leading many of Washington’s highlight reels. He plays Bobby, a DEA agent forced to work alongside Stig (Wahlberg), a Navy SEAL. They don’t like each other! But, darn it, they’re professionals, and they’re determined to bring down a drug lord (Edward James Olmos) — that is, if the bad guys and the plot twists don’t get them first. Both actors were big stars by this point, and they seem to occupy their own separate spaces in 2 Guns, never really gelling.
11. Will Ferrell (Daddy’s Home and Daddy’s Home 2)
After the success of The Other Guys — which we’ll get to a bit further down on the list — Ferrell and Wahlberg reteamed to considerably lesser results. Here, it’s just your standard dumb-guy buddy comedy: Wahlberg is the macho father, and Ferrell is the wimpy stepdad to the guy’s children, but, hey, it turns out they both love those kids enough to overcome their differences. The sequel (which adds Mel Gibson and John Lithgow as their dads) is even worse, but here, unlike in The Other Guys, the actors seem to be in different movies altogether.
10. Joaquin Phoenix (We Own the Night and The Yards)
Of all the actors on this list — and there are some great ones — Phoenix is the one who most often follows his own quixotic rhythms, and if you’re not onboard with him, it’s easy to go a little far afield. That’s the problem with We Own the Night, which is the second James Gray feature (after 2000’s The Yards, which has similar problems) with both Phoenix and Wahlberg. Wahlberg often plays tough guys, but next to the raw naturalism and deep investment of Phoenix, it plays, more than a decade later, like a bit of a pose. These two actors would go in directly opposite directions after this movie, in ways that were probably for the best for both of them.
9. Tom Holland (Uncharted)
Now 50, Wahlberg shifts to Mentor Role in this adaptation of the PlayStation video game, taking impressionable Nathan Drake (Holland) under his wing. For those who have watched the onetime Marky Mark grow up onscreen, it’s touching to see him now be the unlikely comic relief in Uncharted as young cocky Drake takes the lead on a globe-trotting, treasure-hunting adventure. There’s definitely an older-brother vibe that Wahlberg brings to Victor Sullivan, but the movie is so indebted to its cinematic influences that it’s hard for the two actors to build a rapport. Essentially, Holland is playing Peter Parker, while Wahlberg is doing another variation of his tough-guy routine. But if you’ve ever wanted to see an action sequence set inside a Papa John’s, have we got good news for you.
8. Ted (Ted and Ted 2)
Your mileage may vary on this one. We have always found Seth MacFarlane’s farting, sex-obsessed, vulgarian teddy bear obnoxious, unfunny, and offensive in a way that’s less cheerful than retrograde, but maybe you feel differently. (We probably shouldn’t be friends if you do, though.) But Wahlberg is usually better at portraying the Boston bro than when he’s opposite an animatronic bear: At times it feels a little bit like he’s reacting to those trees in The Happening. He’s got better chemistry with Mila Kunis than with Ted himself, but then again, who wouldn’t?
7. George Clooney (The Perfect Storm)
Based on Sebastian Junger’s hugely popular book, The Perfect Storm is among the most Massachusetts-y of Wahlberg’s films, teaming him with George Clooney, who plays Billy, a veteran Gloucester fishing-boat captain desperate to bring in a big haul. (Wahlberg’s Bobby is a newbie who becomes part of Billy’s crew right when a devastating storm threatens their lives.) This man-versus-nature drama is all about the spectacle — check out those towering waves and darkening skies — but the cast brings the necessary humanity. And Wahlberg and Clooney are nicely matched, exuding the grit and terror of two ordinary guys doing everything they can to stay alive.
6. Dwayne Johnson and Anthony Mackie (Pain & Gain)
Michael Bay’s meathead cinema has rarely been as satirical and self-aware than in this true-life crime drama about three Miami dunces who hatch a kidnapping scheme, having as much luck as your typical Coen-brothers protagonist. Wahlberg is Daniel, Dwayne Johnson is Paul, and Anthony Mackie is Noel — what they have in common is they love to work out and don’t much like regular jobs. (Both Daniel and Paul have spent time in the pen.) Pain & Gain is very entertaining as their plan goes pear-shaped, but what’s best is watching these bro-tastic characters make mistake after mistake, their confidence in themselves always misguided. Underneath the testosterone and suntan lotion, there’s a vulnerability that the actors bring to their roles, arguing that even meatheads have souls.
5. Leonardo DiCaprio (The Departed)
Technically speaking, Leonardo DiCaprio and Wahlberg are hardly friends in this movie. (They spend most of The Departed at each other’s throats, now that you mention it.) But they’re still on the same side, and whatever frustrations Sergeant Dignam has with DiCaprio’s undercover cop, they’re nothing compared to how much he wants to take down Matt Damon’s dirty Sully. So maybe they’re not buddies. But then again, Dignam takes down the guy who killed Billy in the movie’s final scene, and what more could you ask for from a buddy?
4. Clooney and Ice Cube (Three Kings)
A few years before the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, Three Kings critiqued American exceptionalism by updating The Treasure of the Sierra Madre for the Gulf War. Wahlberg, Clooney, and Ice Cube play U.S. soldiers on a quest for treasure who grow a conscience along the way. To be sure, this isn’t a heroic portrait of our men in uniform — rather, it’s a tale of self-interest and blinkered worldviews — and the three actors (as well as co-star Spike Jonze) form an unlikely band of brothers who want to find this gold so that they can feel their trip into the desert was worth it. Wahlberg would later sign up for a lot of rah-rah military films, but Three Kings sure isn’t that.
3. Christian Bale (The Fighter)
Wahlberg, who starred in and produced this true-life tale of boxer Micky Ward, had a hard time getting actors to commit to the role of Dicky Eklund, the drug-addicted fighter who is always in Ward’s corner. But then he thought about Christian Bale, whose daughter went to the same school as his: “I approached him in the playground … and said, ‘Dude, I have this movie, and I want you to read it.’” Their characters are half-brothers, and you feel that tight bond between the actors, with Bale providing an intensity and tough love that Ward needs as he takes his shot at the title. Mentor, friend, cautionary tale: Eklund is everything to Ward, making The Fighter a kind of love story between two men who feel comfortable only inside the ring.
2. Ferrell (The Other Guys)
Before Daddy’s Home, Wahlberg and Ferrell perfected their double act here, casting Wahlberg as the cool one and Ferrell as the nerd. Of course, it’s actually much more complicated than that in The Other Guys — Ferrell’s by-the-book Allen has a pretty dark past — but this might be Wahlberg’s funniest performance, playing Terry as a guy who is pretty sure he’s destined to be a badass police officer, all evidence to the contrary. This send-up of buddy-cop comedies gets a large percentage of its bountiful laughs from just how offended Terry is about having to hang out with this big dweeb, although the two men’s prickly rapport starts to soften over the course of the movie. Ferrell seemed to draw out Wahlberg’s oddball comedic side, a nice counterbalance to the self-righteous action heroes he seems to favor these days.
1. John C. Reilly (Boogie Nights)
Who’s a better friend than Reed Rothchild? He’ll lift weights with you. He’ll do (lots of) cocaine with you. He’ll embark on a thrilling music career with you. He’ll do magic tricks for you. He will be on your side no matter what happens. You might say he has the touch. You might say he has the power.
Grierson & Leitch write about the movies regularly and host a podcast on film. Follow them on Twitter or visit their site.