By Jeffrey Sanzel
Netflix began as a DVD rental source before it moved into streaming. Eventually, it began to produce its own material, including some exceptional films, series, and specials. These have included Beasts of No Nation, Roma, Mudbound, Orange Is the New Black, House of Cards, Stranger Things, and recently The Irishman and Marriage Story. Not everything has been this intense: Glow, Dear White People, and John Mulaney and the Sack Lunch Bunch, among many other smart, amusing offerings. It is unfortunate that Netflix now offers the disappointing action comedy Spenser Confidential.
Spenser Confidential is loosely based on Ace Atkins’ novel Wonderland, with characters created by Robert B. Parker. Here, the responsible parties are Peter Berg (director) and Sean O’Keefe and Brian Helgeland (screenplay).
Mark Walhberg plays Boston police officer Spenser who is now being released from five years in prison for assaulting his captain (a stock villain played by Michael Gaston). While at first it seems that Spenser’s sole motivation was breaking up a domestic dispute, it is gradually revealed that there is more to it than just the captain’s mistreatment of his wife.
On the day of Spenser’s release, the captain is murdered. The suspicion falls on a dirty cop who appears to have killed himself over it. Spenser seems to be the only one who suspects that all is not what it seems. While all he wants to do is learn how to drive big rigs and move out to Arizona (!), he realizes that he is the only honest man in Boston and capable of seeing what no one else does. He sets out on a quest to clear the deceased officer’s disgraced memory. He teams up with his new roommate, Hawk, a gentle giant who had gone to prison for manslaughter. They are, of course, a caricature of a mismatch; while it tries, hilarity does not ensue.
What follows is a plot that includes a host of standard tropes including a corrupt police force, white supremacists, gang violence, goons-for-hire, drug trafficking, and shady business at the soon-to-be-built casino, Wonderland. There is the obligatory “cops like doughnuts” joke and a boxing montage. Spenser even provides lists for the camera reading “Who killed him?” and makes bold statements like, “I couldn’t let it go.”
The tone strips its gears as it shifts between sitcom and deadly serious. A vicious dog attack is played as slapstick in this bizarre mix of real and cartoon violence. Perhaps there was an attempt to make this a common man as super hero vehicle — there are various references to Spenser as Batman — but there is no follow-through on that concept either. The jokey moments come across as precious, with glib quips often followed by an exceptionally ugly moment. It is not impossible to pull off this seemingly incongruent blend; the Dirty Harry movies did it brilliantly. Spenser Confidential doesn’t even try. It just lopes along, leaving a trail (and trial) of clichés.
Mark Wahlberg is the star and obviously the only reason for the film being made; he appears in nearly every one of the one hundred and eleven minutes. He has a natural ease and, with a better script, he could have used his warmth to offset the character’s anger. But his Spenser (“a Boston cawp with a tempah”) seems to be a relic from television of the 70’s and his rage comes with a wink, making it all seem phony.
As we now live in an age of complex anti-heroes — Tony Soprano, Walter White, Saul Goodman — Spenser comes across as insufferably self-righteous and squeaky clean. He is constantly spouting aphorisms about honesty and integrity and “doing the right thing.” The movie lacks subtlety and much of this can be attributed to Wahlberg’s mostly two-dimensional performance. Perhaps the character’s constant need to be liked, even when punching or being punched, is at the root of the problem. The writers failed to give Spenser any genuine emotional texture and this prevents him from engaging us.
For the most part, the supporting cast, with a few exceptions, are interchangeable. Alan Arkin is fine if a bit low energy; he does what he usually does but there is a vague sense that he is walking through it.
Winston Duke has a certain charm but his Hawk seems never committed to being one thing or another, floating through the story as a generic sidekick. The only thing we learn is that he likes animals; this doesn’t seem enough to flesh out a character who is basically to the second lead.
Iliza Shlesinger is Spenser’s on-again off-again girlfriend, Cissy, a dog groomer with an attitude. She manages to make the most of what she is given, finding a few of the film’s only real laughs. Her scene with Spenser in a restaurant bathroom is particularly funny and tells us everything we need to know about their relationship. (It should be noted that this scene, along with the violence and the language, are what would earn this an R rating.)
Overall, the Boston accents fade in and out like the hackneyed desaturated flashbacks. At nearly two hours, it is overstuffed. Trimmed down to eighty minutes would not have solved the many problems but it would have eliminated the movie’s repetitiveness. It is obvious from the final moments that the intention is to launch a series of films centered on Spenser and Company. Like Spenser Confidential¸ they will be for Mark Wahlberg fans only. If even them.
Spenser Confidential is now streaming on Netflix.