In Netflix’s latest film, Spenser Confidential, Mark Wahlberg plays the titular hero in a totally new take on a popular literary detective. In reality, this Spenser spends little time sleuthing and most of his time as a human punching bag. So much so that, at one point, his likelihood to take a solid punch to the face solicits one of the film’s best quips from his sidekick, Hawk (Winston Duke).
But none of this is by accident, as Spenser Confidential is intentionally designed to be a fairly lighthearted ‘punch ‘em up, shoot ‘em up’ movie that has little resemblance to its literary source. And for most audiences, that’s going to be just fine.
As the story begins, we learn Spenser is finishing a five-year stint in prison for assaulting a bent Boston police captain (Michael Gaston) who liked to smack his wife around, amongst other crimes. Spenser’s released with the intention of leaving the only city he’s ever called home to start a new journey as a semi-truck driver. While he trains for his new career, Spenser has to share a room with a struggling MMA fighter named Hawk and put up with the constant gripes of his landlord/mentor (Alan Arkin).
Spenser Confidential wastes no time jumping right in as one poor police captain is murdered on the same day Spenser regains his freedom. The coincidence makes Spenser a short-lived suspect (Hawk becomes his alibi), but also makes him determined to snoop around. Spenser’s former cop buddies are in way too much of a hurry to wrap up their murder investigation and a murder-suicide as Detective Terrace Graham (Brandon Scales) is found dead hours after the murder from a gunshot wound.
Adding to the case against the now-deceased detective, Graham’s blue SUV was used in the ambush on the dead captain. For reasons that simply come down to instinct, Spenser’s sure that Graham didn’t do it and takes it upon himself to look where the official investigation fails to go. Along the way, he finds plenty of opportunities to throw his fists and even more to stop a few with his face.
Corrupt cops, mob money, and gambling are all a part of the sinister web that Spenser would eventually need to unravel. There really isn’t much mystery to the whole thing and even the most dramatic scenes are short-lived. The film isn’t a comedy, but it’s clearly nothing to be taken too seriously either. That’s a bit of a departure for director Peter Berg.
Spenser Confidential is the fifth team-up for Berg and Wahlberg and it doesn’t pack nearly the dramatic punch most of Lone Survivor (2013), Deep Horizon (2016), or Patriots Day (2016). I was disappointed Spenser didn’t possess the same levity or even try to be a serious crime drama. The tone from the beginning is light and the film feels like more of an exercise in how much fun the director and his star could have on the set than any real foray into dramatic cinema.
But if you laugh while watching Spenser Confidential, that’s okay. Berg and Wahlberg want you to laugh. They’re trying to be funny and goofy at times. While I firmly believe that was their intention, it didn’t completely work for me. Too much of the film comes off as lazy and I ultimately found the way to enjoy it was to stop trying to think it through.
In addition to the simplicity of the plot and mediocre quality of the script, the performances are fairly pedestrian. Arkin remains a scene-stealer who’s becoming more fun to watch the older he gets, but his character is indistinguishable from a half dozen others he’s played in the recent past.
Winston Duke’s Hawk feels like a missed opportunity as his character was clearly written with more depth than what ended up in the final cut. There’s some backstory about also being an ex-con (he went to jail for manslaughter), growing up in post-Katrina New Orleans, and losing his father…. but it’s all reduced to throwaway dialogue with Spenser that isn’t fully explored.
The film clearly opens a door for a sequel and, if one is made, audiences will have to hope Hawk is given more time to stand on his own. The same could be said for Spenser’s on-again-off-again love interest (Iliza Shlesinger). The writer-comedian shows potential in the few scenes she’s in but Berg doesn’t give her enough room to show what she’s capable of. In the end, both Duke and Schlesinger are only there to tag along with Wahlberg as goes looking for the next big fight.
The film comes under the “Spenser” umbrella which some will recognise as the famous Boston-based private eye from the books by the late Robert B. Parker. One of the most prolific mystery writers of the 20th-century, Parker’s wise-cracking private dick was one of literature’s best detectives since Sam Spade. Moreover, the character was brought to life on US television on a popular series called Spenser for Hire (1985-88) starring the late Robert Urich.
So it’s easy to see why many critics are disappointed with this movie. To say the new film is “loosely” based on Parker’s iconic character would be an insult to lose adaptations. In fact, I can’t remember the last time I watch any film or series adaptation that was so “loose”. The only recognisable remnants from Parker’s original or the TV series is the name of the lead character, the names and genders and racial identities of his closest confidants (Hawk and Susan), and the historic backdrop where the action takes place (Boston). Nothing else looks or feels remotely familiar.
In the end, this is deeply flawed from a storytelling and filmmaking standpoint and none of the performances are stellar… but Spenser Confidential is stupid and fun enough to fill a slow Friday night at home.
Cast & Crew
director: Peter Berg.
writers: Sean O’Keefe & Brian Helgeland (based on ‘Wonderland’ and the TV series ‘Spenser: For Hire’ by Ace Atkins & Robert B. Parker).
starring: Mark Wahlberg, Winston Duke, Iliza Shlesinger, Bookem Woodbine, Marc Maron & Austin Post.