2020, R, 110 mins.
Mark Wahlberg as Spenser / Alan Arkin as Henry Cimoli / Winston Duke as Hawk / Colleen Camp as Mara / Iliza Shlesinger as Cissy
Directed by Peter Berg / Written by Brian Helgeland and Sean O'Keefe
The new Netflix produced action comedy SPENSER CONFIDENTIAL is ever-so-loosely based on the Ace Atkins novel WONDERLAND, which in turn used character names from the detective series by Robert B. Parker (that work was appropriated into the mid to late 80s TV series SPENSER: FOR HIRE with Robert Urich.
Still with me?
It seems that the
makers of this film were hoping for it to springboard a new franchise, but
it becomes abundantly clear very early on in SPENSER: CONFIDENTIAL that
it's really not up to creative speed
as far as solid whodunnits are concerned.
That, and this represents the fifth team-up of director Peter Berg
and star Mark Wahlberg, coming off of initially good films like LONE
SURVIVOR, DEEPWATER HORIZON,
and PATRIOT DAYS, only to see them hit rock bottom with last year's awful MILE
22. After watching
SPENSER CONFIDENTIAL I was left wondering how this pairing - despite a
decade of working together - is producing more pictures of increasing
diminishing returns instead of, well, getting better at their
It's all too bad,
as Wahlberg and Berg have most certainly made good films together and
apart, not to mention that their latest together also boasts a screenplay
adaptation co-written by Brian Helgeland (L.A. CONFIDENTIAL and MYSTIC
RIVER), so my interests were peaked going in.
SPENSER CONFIDENTIAL, to its modest credit, doesn't waste time with
character and story introductions. Very
early on we meet the film's resident bad boy anti-hero in Spenser (Wahlberg),
who's serving half a decade in prison for an illegal beat down of a
suspect while serving as a police officer.
The opening scene with Spenser shows that he's not a fully reformed
prisoner, seeing as he shows no hesitation in throwing down with a bunch
of Aryan Brotherhood convicts that want to send him off during his last
days of incarceration in bloody style.
In the ultra convenient world of this film, Spenser seems to escape
this situation consequence free and still manages to parole on time.
He has dreams,
though, on the outside to leave his home of Boston for Arizona in hopes of
being a trucker. He's reunited with and supported upon leaving prison by his
elder buddy in Henry (a snarky Alan Arkin, a bright spot in the film,
harnessing his Alan Arkin-ness to full satisfying effect).
Spenser tries to keep himself clean to the best of this abilities
on the outside and devotes his time away from trucker trainer to helping
Henry train an up-and-coming MMA fighter that resides with them, Hawk
(Winston Duke). Unfortunately,
Spenser's relatively quite life of normalcy is turned upside down when he
learns that the man he violently assaulted years ago (a high ranking
police official that led to his imprisonment) has shown up brutally
murdered, along with a far less crooked cop.
Spenser smells an immediate rat while trying to fend off detectives
that believe he may have had something to do with the killings.
Deciding that he needs a fellow partner in sleuthing, Spenser teams
up with Hawk to track down the necessary clues to find out who was behind
this heinous double murder, using all methods (legal or otherwise)
One of the
fundamental problems with SPENSER CONFIDENTIAL is that, as a basic
detective yarn, it's simply not very compellingly written, which has a lot
to do with the fact that the central mystery to be unraveled that's
contained here isn't as intoxicating as it should have been (plus, the
inevitable "big reveals" that highlight the film's latter acts
are pretty overtly telegraphed and can be seen from a mile away).
Helgeland and co-writer Sean O'Keefe rarely throw any unexpected
curveballs at audience members, leaving the most humbly attentive being
able to deduce the key evil power players early on and with minimal fuss.
All we're essentially left with is the budding bromance between
Spenser and Hawk, who are shown using blunt force trauma first and asking
questions a distant second. Some
of the film's humor is well placed, especially in showing how Spenser
seems oblivious to aspects of the outside technological world (granted, he
was only in jail for five years, so how would he have never heard of
"the cloud"?). There
are some meaty laughs here at Spenser's obliviousness, and Wahlberg, to
his credit, can play breathless obliviousness to amusing effect with the
best of them.
CONFIDENTIAL most definitely doesn't ask much of the 48-year-old actor,
who cockily parades around much of the film on bland autopilot (attempts
on his part at verbal zingers and physical comedy are anemic at best).
Poor Winston Duke fares even worse, and the BLACK
PANTHER and US actor has demonstrated
ample charismatic range on his recent film resume, but here he seems
disappointingly saddled with an underwritten sidekick role of very limited
substance. He and Wahlberg
don't have much in the area of on-screen macho chemistry either, which
further hurts the proceedings. Outside
of the aforementioned and welcoming presence of Alan Arkin, the only other
bright performance spot here is Iliza Shlesinger as Spenser coarse talking
ex-wife Cissy, who seems to understand that she's playing a pretty flimsy,
beleaguered wife character and instead infuses in her some hyperactive
intensity that gives her scenes with Wahlberg a much needed jolt of
I've said it many
times before and I'll say it again: Peter Berg is a good director
that just so happens to make some deeply forgettable to awful films
in-between some of his finer work. When
he brings his A-game (like in DEEPWATER HORIZON) he's an unstoppable
force. In disposable dreck
like MILE 22, though, it's like he's masquerading as a low rent Michael
Bay wanna-be. Berg's
technically assured fingerprints aren't really anywhere to be found in
SPENSER CONFIDENTIAL, outside of his obvious and negative predilection
towards uncoordinated visual chaos over editorial fluidity (many of the
fight and action sequences here are a blur of sloppy choreography).
The end result is a film that ironically feels like it was made for
small screen consumption as opposed to one that feels big and expansive
that just so happens to be premiering on a streaming channel.
There's an undeniable TV movie of the week look and vibe to SPENSER
CONFIDENTIAL that's hard to shake, and especially when one is reminded
that this marks Berg and Wahlberg's fifth partnership in a decade.
I know I keep emphasizing that
One last thing. There's too much white savior signaling in SPENSER CONFIDENTIAL that left a bad taste in my mouth. The titular white hero is gung ho about finding the real murderer of a fallen black officer on top of the other killed white officer, which is problematic enough. But then there are so many scenes in SPENSER CONFIDENTIAL that has its white hero from Beantown maliciously laying violent smackdowns on a whole lot of people of color, most of whom are presented as broad gang banger stereotypes. Wahlberg has a fairly sordid past criminal history of his own when it comes to hate crimes (for assaulting multiple Vietnamese men on the streets in 1988). Obviously, the actor has made concentrated efforts to personally atone for such hellish actions, but there's something unsavory and crude about witnessing him playing characters that beat up minorities. SPENSER CONFIDENTIAL ends on a would-be confident note that tips off a potential sequel. For me, when the end credits rolled by I was all in favor of closing the book on this detective franchise for good.