Mark Wahlberg

The Gambler

I wouldn’t necessarily list Mark Wahlberg among my favorite actors, yet I find myself enjoying many of his movies. He’s capable of turning in really good performances – whether it’s Lone Survivor or The Fighter. On the other hand, he’s also good for the occasional dud (see Broken City), though not for lack of effort or talent. When I got wind of The Gambler, I thought it might have been a stylish crime movie something like Rounders meets The Drop. The film could have been an effective character study and examination of addiction – but instead it fell flat, leaving me bored and disappointed.

The Gambler is a remake of a 1974 movie of the same name starring James Caan. The newer version keeps the same basic plot, with Wahlberg starring as English professor Jim Bennett, a man with a profound gambling addiction. We’re introduced to his weakening vice immediately, as he impulsively wagers and loses large sums of money on blackjack and roulette in a backdoor casino. He is not a man who will ever quit while he is ahead. Despite his penchant for reckless living, Jim seems to be doing ok for himself. However, every addict faces rock bottom at some point, and it’s only a matter of time before his lifestyle catches up to him.

While gambling at the aforementioned casino, Jim becomes indebted to its owner after losing big and adding to an existing debt. He borrows more money from a loan shark named Baraka (Michael K. Williams, Kill the Messenger), and soon he owes money to at least two people who are threatening to wipe him out in about a week’s time if he doesn’t pay up. Baraka challenges Jim’s moral code when he wants him to involve one of his students in paying the debt. Complicating matters is the strange dynamic he shares with another one of his students, who moonlights as a waitress at the casino. Their relationship is never fully explored, and the subplot remained undeveloped.

The plot was straightforward, and I appreciated its simplicity. However, the movie could have been much more entertaining. As a viewer, I never connected with Wahlberg’s character, even though his dire circumstances lent themselves to empathy. His performance was capable, but something about it felt too restrained. Where was the abject desperation? I never felt sorry for him, despite his obvious pathetic state. One could see that his addiction was crippling and that he was powerless to stop it, but that was the only aspect of the movie that resonated with me. I could see that he was desperate, but he never made me believe it.

The performances were fine, with some notable supporting turns from Jessica Lange (The Vow) as Jim’s wealthy, enabling mother and John Goodman (The Monuments Men) as yet another loan shark with whom Jim makes a high stakes side-bet. But once again, the movie never really went anywhere. Despite a lot of tough talk, the threats from his bookies felt hollow, and I only mildly cared whether or not Jim escaped with his life. The gambling scenes were taut with anticipation, but those moments were sparse.

In sum, The Gambler just didn’t leave much of an impact. The potential for a great story was there, but the movie never seemed to go anywhere. It could have been an exhilarating ride as we watched a man descend into total desperation – but Jim just seemed like a rich brat who never really “got it.” I thought it was just average. Grade: C+

Lone Survivor

Some of the finest contributions to 20th century film have captured the brutality and complexity of war, showing both its devastating psychological consequences and the savagery of battle.  From Apocalypse Now to Full Metal Jacket to Saving Private Ryan, Hollywood has brought us some incredible showcases of war.  Most of the war movies I’ve seen were set during the Vietnam War, but the Civil War and World Wars 1 and 2 have been represented, among others.  While the jungle of Vietnam is a familiar backdrop, few movies have depicted the mountainous terrain of the more recent war in Afghanistan until now.  Lone Survivor tells the real life account of a group of SEALS who fought courageously in pursuit of high-profile Taliban ally Ahmad Shah in 2005.

Actor/director Peter Berg (Battleship) dramatizes the events of Operation Red Wing, a military action in Afghanistan that claimed the lives of all but one SEAL, lone survivor Marcus Luttrell (Mark Wahlberg, 2 Guns).  Let me preface by saying that any criticism I have is from a purely cinematic perspective; I am thankful for the men and women who serve our country and understand full well the incredible sacrifice that was made in that military operation.  I’m only discussing Berg’s interpretation of what happened, and I found the film mostly effective.  He opens the movie with ostensibly real footage of the grueling preparation endured by all SEALS, revealing the unique fortitude required of the men who carry out some of our most dangerous military operations.

We are introduced to the unit in Afghanistan, and the prevailing mood is one of fraternal camaraderie. Michael Murphy (Taylor Kitsch, Savages), Danny Deitz (Emile Hirsch, Savages), and Matt Axelson (Ben Foster, Contraband) join Luttrell, and the band of brothers couldn’t be any closer.  When they are apprised of the mission, it’s go time.  Luttrell, Murphy, Axe and Deitz are embedded in the mountainous terrain, and soon locate their target Shah.  They are hidden in dry foliage when a local goat herder and two boys stumble upon them.  In a pivotal moment that ultimately determines their fate, Lieutenant Mike Murphy must decide whether they let the party go on their way, detain them, or eliminate them all together.

When Murphy releases the party, they promptly alert Shah and his well-armed band of locals to the soldiers’ presence.  A firefight ensues, followed by an extended and gut-wrenching battle, as the SEALS are outgunned and perilously exposed.  They suffer devastating injuries, including broken legs, shrapnel, and bullet wounds.  It was nearly unbearable to watch, including one scene where they literally hurl themselves over a cliff, tumbling down the mountain as bone meets rock.  The human body and the human spirit weren’t meant to endure such turmoil and trauma, and the viewer is constantly reminded that SEALS are simply cut from a different cloth.

Lone Survivor succeeded in its accuracy, but I can’t help but compare it to the previously mentioned standouts in the genre.  While it was effectively authentic, it was almost too straightforward.  There wasn’t much character or plot development, but I suppose that wasn’t Berg’s intention.  I think the goal of depicting Operation Red Wing was achieved, but I’m not sure this movie is emblematic of an era like the great Vietnam movies were.  However, the casting was excellent, with Wahlberg, Kitsch, and Foster masterfully capturing the bravery, courage and heroism of these real-life fallen soldiers.  Grade: B.

2 Guns

What do movies and sports have in common?  Match-ups.  It’s all about the match-ups baby.  Some cinematic pairings just get us excited, like the prospect of Mark Wahlberg (Pain & Gain) and Denzel Washington (Flight).  Washington is a living legend, and Wahlberg has cemented his place in modern cinema with critically acclaimed turns in films such as The Fighter and The Departed, for which he received Oscar nominations.  The action comedy is on the rise lately, and 2 Guns tantalized moviegoers with the rare opportunity to see Washington bring levity to a performance.  Unfortunately, even charismatic leading men can’t save a goofy script.

Washington and Wahlberg are Bobby Trench and Michael Stigman (Stig), respectively.  When we meet the pair, they are hatching a plot to rob a small bank to swindle a drug lord named Papi Greco (Edward James Olmos) out of his holdings.  They each have distinct reasons for wanting to pull this caper, but each is keeping the real reason a secret.  At first blush we think these two are criminals, after all who else would be robbing a bank?  In actuality they are both “undercover” in their own way, with Bobby being a DEA agent and Stig having firsthand experience with naval intelligence, despite the appearance of being a career criminal.

As each plays fast and loose with the law, the viewer is left wondering if our protagonists are corrupt or just deep undercover.  Bobby tries to convince fellow agent Deb (Paula Patton, Mission:Impossible – Ghost Protocol) that the robbery will serve as a way to nab Papi, while Stig is beholden to corrupt superior officers (James Marsden, Straw Dogs) within the Navy.  Their plan goes awry when they find out Papi’s bank vault yields a much larger heist than expected.  Not only do they need to ascertain the origin of the surplus money, they must ward off several factions who will stop at nothing to retrieve it.  Complicating matters is the fact that Bobby and Stig can’t really trust each other after having lied about their true identities.

I’ll start with the positive.  Washington and Wahlberg have tons of chemistry and good comedic timing.  I don’t have an issue with their performances at all; my issue is with the source material.  The storyline was simply foolish and muddled, and much of the characters behavior was far-fetched.  The screenplay marks the big screen debut for writer Blake Masters, who has previously worked in television.  Maybe his next effort will be more successful, although 2 Guns appears poised to have a solid opening weekend.  Nevertheless, it takes more than two talented leading men to make a successful movie, even if the pairing looks like a “slam dunk.”  Even a dynamic duo like Al Pacino and Robert DeNiro aren’t a sure-fire success if the script is wanting (see Righteous Kill).  If those two legends can team up for a dud, no tandem is above reproach.  The rest of the cast did little to bolster the movie, and it will not be remembered as a summer standout.  I’m not saying it was horrible, just very mediocre – in spite of its two stars.  Grade: C

This article first appeared at Poptimal and was reprinted with permission


Pain & Gain

The trailer for Pain & Gain looked like my kind of movie, just the type of exciting, cool flick that cinephiles can expect this time of year as we gear up for the action-packed summer blockbusters.  I’m a fan of Mark Wahlberg, who is no stranger to playing the badass antihero (see The Departed and Contraband), and I liked the premise.  It promised to tell the true-life tale of an ambitious young bodybuilder who went from rags to riches, breaking a few laws along the way.   I was entertained at various times throughout the movie, but by the time the credits rolled I had an underwhelmed feeling.

Wahlberg stars as Daniel Lugo, a convicted murderer who took the lives of two innocent people in 1995 during a botched robbery.  The movie opens by introducing us to Lugo, an ambitious meathead with a voracious appetite for his version of the American Dream.  Lugo was inspired by the fictional exploits of the likes of Tony Montana and Michael Corleone, and (stupidly) aspired to be like them.  One would think that Scarface in particular would be a cautionary tale, considering that he ended up laying dead in a fountain looking like a piece of Swiss cheese – but don’t tell that to Daniel Lugo.

Lugo worked at a Florida gym, where he perfected his body and his designs on untold riches.  Accompanying him was friend Adrian (Anthony Mackie, Gangster Squad), a fellow bodybuilder with similar ambitions of greatness.  Eventually Lugo hatches a plan to kidnap and extort Victor Kershaw (Tony Shalhoub, Hemingway & Gellhorn), a wealthy client for whom he acts as personal trainer.  Kershaw has several assets that Lugo can liquidate if he compels Victor to turn them over.  Daniel and Adrian recruit a third man for their plot, a convict named Paul Doyle (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson) who has served time in federal prison.  Doyle is a humorously devout Christian who found Jesus in jail.  Perversely ironic, he has no problem jibing his Christian ideals with a criminal lifestyle.  Once the three stooges have the plan in motion, they bungle their way through, eventually getting their hands on millions of dollars.  Eventually things begin to go south with Kershaw and the gang decides they need to do another job.  Their greed eventually gets the best of them, leading them to the robbery and murder of a wealthy couple that belonged to their gym.

The movie began to lose me about a third of the way through, when I couldn’t tell if it was taking itself seriously or not.  There were several implausible scenes, including one where Kershaw seems to be invincible.  I did research after the fact, and it turns out that these farfetched things actually happened.  I can’t fault director Michael Bay (Transformers) for telling it like it is, but I can fault him for the way he chose to depict these real-life events.  The three principal characters were portrayed as funny and likeable, and so I liked them.  But by the time the movie concludes, the viewer realizes that these funny guys did a horrible thing.  Because they were depicted so comically initially, I’m not sure that the severity of their actions adequately resonated with viewers.  I enjoyed the laughs, and Wahlberg was his usual cool, badass self – but I was left with too many conflicting elements, from an emotional perspective.  I don’t attribute this to any particular depth of storytelling, but rather to a muddled approach by director Michael Bay.

Grade: C+

This article first appeared at Poptimal and was reprinted with permission.


I saw Ted last week, and so my friend asked my opinion today before taking her son.  I’ll repeat what I told her, “it’s funny – but it’s a talking bear, which is stupid “ – so there’s that.  If you actually make it to the theater to see it, you will probably enjoy.  The hard part is getting past the idea that as an adult, you’re going to see a movie about a talking bear.  Brought to us by the creator of Family Guy, I figured it would be funny.  Quite simply, it’s about a man who must put some separation between himself and his best childhood friend, a talking bear.  My other friend remarked that she thought Mark Wahlberg had turned a corner in his career and would be above such fare.  I reminded her that even Matt Damon (whom I adore) made Stuck on You.

Mark Wahlberg (Contraband) stars as John Bennett, a thirty-five year old man with a middling job and average life.  Average, that is until you look down at his best friend, a talking bear.  When John was a boy, he was bullied and had few friends.  His childhood was a lonely one, and he longed for companionship and a best friend that he could call his own.  When he received a teddy bear for Christmas one year, he finally found a companion.  I’ve never seen a little boy like a teddy bear so much, but ok.  John and Ted do everything together, they are inseparable.  John wishes that Ted would be his best friend forever, and that he was a real friend.  When a shooting star drops from the sky later that night, John’s wish comes true.  When he awakens the next morning, Ted is alive.  John panics momentarily, but Ted reminds him that this was his wish.  There was a hilarious scene where Ted meets John’s parents, who react as I probably would.  Eventually everyone relaxes, and Ted becomes like one of the family.  It’s almost like he’s John’s brother, which is a little weird.  I appreciated the fact that Ted’s identity wasn’t concealed from everyone else.  In fact, Ted becomes a celebrity as word spreads of the sensational talking bear.  Through it all, John is right by his side.

Fast forward to present day and Ted is still right by John’s side, which is sort of the problem.  As our omniscient narrator accurately points out, even if you’re a talking bear, eventually there will come a day when no one gives a shit.  Ted is living a (relatively) normal life with John and his girlfriend of 4 years, Lori (Mila Kunis, Friends With Benefits).  John and Ted live like they are still kids, getting stoned and cracking jokes while vegging out on the sofa.  Lori is fed up with John’s immaturity, and hopes that the next four years of their life together don’t involve the irreverent little bear. John can’t even make it through a thunderstorm without his teddy bear, all because of his childhood promise to be BFFs forever.  Eventually John makes the mature choice, but is able to find the right balance between fun times with Ted and the adult dynamics of a relationship.

A talking bear is obviously a cheap gimmick, but not all humor has to be dry, self-deprecating, or otherwise “smart.”   If you don’t find Family Guy amusing in the least bit, it’s probably best to avoid Ted, since MacFarlane is responsible for both.  I like that type of humor, so it worked for me.  I thought it was hilarious watching Ted do bong rips and fight with John.  On the other hand, it’s a movie. About. A talking bear.  At the end of the day, that simple fact negates a lot.  If you can get past the silly concept, it’s worth a few laughs. Grade: B.


Mark Wahlberg (The Fighter) has got to be one of the coolest actors around.  His career has only gotten better over the years, and I’ve always been a fan.  I think the first movie I remember seeing him in was Fear, and he showed flashes of greatness even back then.  He’s been nominated for an Academy Award, and I hope one day he’ll take one home.  He’s demonstrated that he can do more than play the tough guy, but that’s one of the roles in which he excels.

In Contraband he portrays a tough guy but a family man, a reluctant hero thrust into a situation beyond his control.  He stars as Chris Farraday, a reformed smuggler of illegal contraband.  Chris has gone straight, and is now the owner of a small home security company.  With his wife Kate (Kate Beckinsale, Underworld: Awakening) and two sons, he has carved out a nice normal existence.  That safe haven is threatened when his wife’s little brother Andy (Caleb Jones, X-Men: First Class) gets himself in trouble with local drug dealer and scumbag Tim Briggs (Giovanni Ribisi, The Rum Diary).  He was transporting cocaine on a cargo ship when it was busted by border patrol and he had to dump the product in the water.  Instead of chalking up the loss to the cost of doing business, Briggs will extract his debt in blood.  In an effort to save Andy’s life, Chris assumes the debt.  The only way he can repay what Andy owes is by agreeing to do a smuggling job for Briggs.  His best friend Sebastien (Ben Foster, The Mechanic) helps arrange the job and also keeps an eye on Kate and the boys while Chris is gone.

Contraband was successful because of its straightforward plot and relatable performances.  Even though the average person will never find themselves thrust into such a dangerous situation, there are few forces more powerful than self-preservation and the need to protect one’s family.  Initially Chris is focused on saving the life of his brother-in-law, but eventually his wife and children become the object of Briggs’ vengeful rage.  As a viewer, I never doubted Wahlberg’s resolve.  Maybe it was his blue-collar Boston roots shining through that made the performance so believable.  Additionally, he and Kate Beckinsale had great chemistry and their performances were delivered with remarkable realism, particularly Kate’s frustration with her brother.  Sometimes your family puts you in the worst position, but you never turn your back on them.  Beckinsale, Jones, and Wahlberg captured the unconditional love that characterizes the bond between family.

It looks like the movie will end up being #1 at the box office, and I think it’s a worthy entrant at that position, though it will probably be a short-lived stay at the top.  It wasn’t a terribly original movie, but that’s ok.  I mean, we’ve seen the overall plot of man saving his family about a million times, but Contraband was exciting and intense and kept me on the edge of my seat. You really can’t ask for much more from a thriller.  I particularly enjoyed the clever way Chris managed to evade authorities while loading the contraband on the boat.  A lot of movies falter at the halfway point, but writer Aaron Guzikowski crafted a storyline that started strong and maintained its intensity throughout.  Contraband had a throwback B-movie vibe that ultimately proved successful, and it’s definitely worth checking out.

This article first appeared at Poptimal at on Contraband’s opening weekend, and was reprinted with permission.