Spenser Confidential (United States, 2020)

March 07, 2020
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Spenser Confidential Poster

Spenser Confidential is a perfect Netflix movie – a mid-budget action/thriller featuring a recognizable star and not requiring much in the way of attention or dedication from a viewer. It’s the kind of film people might not feel compelled to pay $20 for at a local multiplex but might be more than willing to give a shot as part of a streaming package. A throwback to the days when machismo and testosterone defined the genre, this fifth collaboration between director Peter Berg and star Mark Wahlberg feels like an attempt by both to move away from the heavier, fact-based material they have previously favored (LoneSurvivor, Deepwater Horizon, Patriots Day) and into the shallow end of the pool.

Anyone remember the 1980s TV series Spenser for Hire? This movie is another interpretation of the central character in Robert Parker’s series (based on the novel Wonderland by Ace Atkins, writing under a license from Parker’s estate). Wahlberg’s Spenser couldn’t be any different from Robert Urich’s version of the character, although there is a resemblance in demeanor for Spenser’s sidekick, Hawk (played here by Winston Duke and in the TV series by Avery “don’t call me Sisko” Brooks). Wahlberg plays the character as a tough-as-nails type who, like a Timex watch, takes a licking but keeps on ticking. His method of investigation typically involves getting beaten up.

The plot revolves around that threadbare crime movie trope of uncovering corruption in the police force. After getting out of prison having served a five-year sentence for assault on his superior, the dirty and despicable Captain Boylan (Michael Gaston), Spenser comes under the microscope when said officer is murdered in what’s called an execution-style killing. Spenser is defended by his cop buddy, Driscoll (Bokeem Woodbine), and soon another suspect is uncovered. Spenser, driven by an insatiable need to see justice done, believes there’s a cover-up and, aided by his friend Henry (Alan Arkin) and Henry’s new boxing protégé, Hawk, he starts poking his nose into places where it doesn’t belong.

There’s not an original moment to be found in Spenser Confidential and there are a few beats – such as the sex-in-the-bathroom scene – that are surprising to find in a 2020 production. Whatever else Berg and Wahlberg may be interested in promoting with this movie, the concept of the strong female isn’t among them. Spenser’s main squeeze, Cissy (Iliza Shlesinger), is a male construct who bears no resemblance to any living, breathing women. (Then again, I suppose the same charge could be leveled against Spenser.)

The narrative is often predictable and occasionally predictably idiotic. The identity of the chief bad guy will only be surprising to anyone who hasn’t seen another crime movie. To his credit, Berg seems aware that he’s making a very silly film. The way he frames a scene involving a large vehicle and a roadblock is as much designed for a chuckle as an adrenaline rush. Wahlberg seems more relaxed than he has in a while and, along he and Winston Duke don’t share the screen enough for their chemistry to gel, there’s a lively spark between Wahlberg and Alan Arkin.

This is the second Berg/Wahlberg production set in Boston. With screenwriting duties handled (at least in part) by Brian Helgeland, who in 2003 adapted Denis Lehane’s Mystic River for Clint Eastwood, the portrayal of Beantown is accurate. Although it would be unfair to claim that the location is critical to the story, there’s no mistaking the city for an anonymous setting. Filming took place in Boston not some other location (like Toronto) acting as a stand-in.

With the higher bar associated with a theatrical release, it would be nearly impossible to recommend Spenser Confidential. The movie isn’t especially good although it is fun in a distracted, undemanding sort of way. For streaming, however, it will hit the sweet spot for enough viewers to make it worth the investment in time. “Serviceable” is probably the most complimentary term I can come up with. If killing two hours is all that’s expected from a movie, this one fits the profile.

Spenser Confidential (United States, 2020)

Run Time: 1:52
U.S. Release Date: 2020-03-06
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Violence, Sexual Content)
Genre: Thriller
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.00:1