Critics Have Chosen The Best Mark Wahlberg Movie And It Isn’t Boogie Nights

By Nathan Kamal | 3 weeks ago

mark wahlberg the departed sequel

Mark Wahlberg is a tough nut to crack. He first came to show business as an underwear model and a clownish, New Kids on the Block-adjacent rapper known as Marky Mark; he may have been famous and successful, but he definitely was not respected. When he dropped the Funky Bunch and segued into acting, he unexpectedly wowed audiences and critics alike with intense performances in Fear and The Basketball Diaries (alongside fellow up-and-coming star Leonardo DiCaprio). But almost as soon as critics were coming around to Wahlberg as a dramatic actor, he tilted to big dumb blockbusters like Tim Burton’s misbegotten Planet of the Apes reboot and the bizarre rock fantasy of Rock Star, and then later to straight action movies like Shooter and Patriot Day. These days, he is as likely to appear in a Christian drama like Father Stu as he is a high-concept science fiction film like Infinite or Transformers: The Science of Wahlberg. But when Mark Wahlberg is on point, he is really on point. To illustrate the point, his highest-ranked movie on Rotten Tomatoes is one of the best movies of the 1990s, the David O. Russell Gulf War black comedy Three Kings. 

mark wahlberg three kings

The words “Mark Wahlberg in a dark comedy heist set in the aftermath of the Gulf War” would not necessarily instill a sense of confidence in studios in any decade but in 1999, it must have seemed truly bizarre. It is especially odd considering that filmmaker David O. Russell was not the respected director of Silver Linings Playbook and The Fighter at that point, but had only made the masturbation comedy Spanking the Monkey and the Ben Stiller adoption farce Flirting with Disaster by then. But Warner Bros had faith enough to allow Russell to take on the script for Three Kings; it had been written by John Ridley (later of 12 Years a Slave fame) as an exercise in trying to write and sell a movie as quickly as possible. Reportedly, Russell took merely the premise of “heist set in the Gulf War” from Ridley’s script and ran with it. Ridley would later have to work out a deal with Warner Bros to get a Story By credit and apparently still holds hard feelings about it.

three kings

Three Kings stars Mark Wahlberg as Sergeant First Class Troy Barlow, a family man and office worker near the end of his tour in Iraq. He begins the film trudging over a barren landscape, pausing when he sees a figure waving in the distance. He calls out to ask if the US soldiers are “shooting people today,” but is unable to get a straight answer. Nobody seems entirely clear even who is in charge. He ends up taking the shot and killing a man; the movie cuts into an extended sequence of American soldiers partying and generally acting like fools. The tone is set for Mark Wahlberg, George Clooney, Ice Cube, and Spike Jonze to violently bumble their way through a ravaged, desperate land. 

three kings

The actual plot of the movie involves Mark Wahlberg and the others searching for Kuwaiti gold stolen by the Iraq Army under Saddam Hussein, which they plan to steal. It is clear that among the four soldiers, only George Clooney has any actual experience in warfare. The others are essentially in combat away from their day jobs, which a brief, dark montage establishes by showing Wahlberg covered in printer ink in an office, Cube heaving suitcases as an airport baggage handler, and the hillbilly Jonze shooting stuffed animals off the burnt-out wreck of a car. Jonze explains he doesn’t “really have a day job.” 

three kings mark wahlberg

Three Kings is an intensely bleak movie. The comedy is less of the “laughing because it’s funny” variety and more the “laughing because otherwise, it is simply too much” kind. The soldiers casually refer to the Iraqis and Kuwaitis alike with a series of racial slurs (at one point, Cube takes offense to one, only to point out the other perfectly good slurs that could be used). They seem completely ignorant of the humanity of the people around them, and can only try to help in the smallest and most useless of ways as they also try to rob for their own benefit. It’s perhaps the most scathing, satirical look at the US Armed Forces since Catch-22. 

Mark Wahlberg would go on to work with David O. Russell in several more acclaimed films. George Clooney, on the other hand, was outraged by the director’s alleged treatment of the crew and stepped to their defense multiple times, which caused friction. Apparently, that friction eventually led to an on-set fistfight and years of bad blood (which reportedly has been settled). But if anything, the chaos of the set aptly fed into the chaos on screen and creates as much of a sense of realism as the pre-Bourne Identity shaky cameras and explosions. There’s a reason why Three Kings is Mark Wahlberg’s highest-rated film, and it’s not because it was fun to make.