'Rock Star' is heavy-metal heaven

You wouldn't know it from "Planet of the Apes," but Mark Wahlberg is a smart and skillful actor.

True, he's chosen some dubious projects since "Boogie Nights" made him a promising star. He earned more money than respect with "The Perfect Storm," and more respect than money with "Three Kings" and "The Yards."

But now he's found an ideal vehicle. "Rock Star" combines his on-screen savvy with the pop-scene charisma he honed when he was known as Marky Mark in the hip-hop phase of his career. He's a winner this time, and so is most of the movie itself.

Wahlberg plays Chris Cole, a singer as small-time as they come. He works in an office by day and rehearses his rock group - Blood Pollution, a heavy-metal moniker if ever there was one - by night. Blood Pollution is a "tribute band" that slavishly imitates Steel Dragon, a far more famous group. But the rest of Blood Pollution wants to do original material, and they kick Chris out when he refuses to go along.

It seems like the end of the career he never had - until he gets a surprise phone call from Steel Dragon itself, which is ousting its leader and needs a look-alike (and sound-alike) to fill his stylish shoes. Chris leaps at the chance, becomes an overnight sensation, and revels in his newfound fame. He also plunges into the dark side of rock 'n' roll, letting sex and drugs get the better of him - and of his relationship with Emily, the trusty manager and girlfriend (Jennifer Aniston) who's been with him since the beginning.

Will he realize the error of his ways and rediscover the true Chris he's sadly left behind? That's the moral dilemma behind the story, making "Rock Star" more than an ordinary rags-to-riches romp.

Wahlberg reportedly took singing lessons and allowed his voice to be electronically altered for the movie's concert scenes. But his greatest asset is his gift for blending different traits into a seamlessly woven character who often appears cocky, likable, self-assured, and vulnerable within a single scene.

Aniston has a similar talent - they make a terrific team - and the supporting cast is remarkably strong, especially when Timothy Spall shows up as an overage roadie with the kind of hippie haircut that went out of fashion when the Rolling Stones turned 40.

"Rock Star" was directed by Stephen Herek, who has learned a lot about filmmaking since "Mr. Holland's Opus," a manipulative weepie that used music far less effectively. He makes a few mistakes here, allowing the overlong sex-and-drugs material to become so flashy that it threatens to exploit the excesses deplored by the overall story. He also pushes the plot's emotional buttons too hard near the end, coming close to soggy sentimentality.

The movie's good-natured spirit triumphs over its occasional missteps, though, making "Rock Star" a first-rate entertainment most of the way through. If rock turns you off, "Rock Star" may not win you over. If you love the music, this is a trip to heavy-metal heaven.

Rated R; contains sex, nudity, drug use, and much vulgar language.

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