Spenser Confidential (2020)
The Law Has Limits. They Don’t.
Honestly, they could have just called it Spenser — what that ‘Confidential’ is doing in the title is anyone’s guess. It means nothing, but I’d say it’s a signifier meant to remind us of other, better, crime properties — L.A. Confidential (1997), Kansas City Confidential (1952), even Art School Confidential (2006). There’s a generic tone to that title, and hey, we can’t exactly accuse it of false advertising — Spenser Confidential is a very generic crime thriller.
Our hero is former cop Spenser (Mark Wahlberg), fresh out of prison after a five year stretch for assaulting his commanding officer (it’s okay, the guy was a wife beater). When said commanding officer turns up dead, Spenser’s plans to put his life back together have to take a back seat to solve the murder, given that our guy is the obvious main suspect. With grizzled old mentor Henry (Alan Arkin being typically Alan Arkin), wicked hard right-hand man Hawk (Winston Duke), and former-but-not-for-long-come-on-now-who-can-resist-that-Southie-charm girlfriend Cissy (Iliza Shlesinger, and you should really check out her stand up), Spenser — or Spensuh, if you’re feeling phonetic — must sleuth his way to the heart of a dark conspiracy, punching and shooting a few goons along the way.
It’s fine, I guess.
This is the fifth collaboration between Wahlberg and director Peter Berg, and two of those — Deepwater Horizon (2016) and Patriots Day (2016) — have been pretty good, both being robust based-on-fact dramas that demand a combination of grit and shame-free sentimentality that Berg has a knack for (Patriots Day loses points because Wahlberg is playing a fictional character inserted into the action so that Wahlberg can be in pretty much every scene). Lone Survivor (2013) and Mile 22 (2018) are terrible, the former being straight-up propaganda (it’s still based on fact, but sometimes it’s the way you shoot something that tells the tale) and the latter asking us to believe that Marky Mark has a snowball’s chance in hell up against The Raid’s Iko Uwais. Spenser Confidential sits right in the middle, a median point that represents the typical capabilities of both director and star: amiable, often crude, workaday action-comedy — although it is their first comedic effort in tandem, oddly enough. It ticks the boxes it wants to tick and would probably seem puzzled at the assertion that other, different boxes, hithertofore undreamed of, are going tickless.
Which is a shame, because Spenser (no first name is ever given) is one of the more enjoyable inhabitants of the hard-boiled B-list. He’s no Sam Spade or Phil Marlowe, but since Robert B. Parker introduced him in the 1973 novel The Godwulf Manuscript, he’s proven to be quite durable. He’s starred in 49 novels and been played by Robert Urich in an ’80s TV series, Spenser: For Hire (1985-88) and Joe Mantegna in a short series of TV movies around the turn of the millennium. As written and previously performed, he’s no gun thug: he’s a college-educated detective with a literary turn of phrase and a taste for, if not the finer things in life, then at least tastes a few rungs up from working-class Boston.
Wahlberg’s Spenser, by contrast, is Wahlberg simply calling himself Spenser; all the specific traits that made the literary character unique have been carved away, leaving a broad-accented, smart-mouthed Southie tough guy much like any other of the type that Wahlberg has played so often. Sidekick Hawk gets a similar treatment; his past as a member of the French Foreign Legion sapped out for being a vegetarian MMA fighter because, hey, he’s a big guy, and that’s funny, right? It’s clear that ol’ mate Marky Mark is angling for a franchise here (Mile 22 exploded on the launch pad in that regard), and so the character and scenario has been refitted to allow him to be as comfortable as possible in the role, playing to his strengths as a performer and shielding his weaknesses completely.
Which is fine up to a point — I’m not immune to Marky’s charms, I’ll admit — but it’s a bit of a missed opportunity. It also speaks to a pretty boring, one-note interpretation of Wahlberg’s hometown, with the Beantown cliché seemingly the only allowable screen version thereof. This is really cemented with the inclusion of Shlesinger’s endlessly angry, endlessly horny dog groomer instead of the original character’s long-time love, psychologist Susan Silverman — can you imagine Marky swapping bon mots over chilled white wine with someone like that?
So, this is very much SINO — Spenser in Name Only — which might have been fine except that the story this Wahlbergian figure is tasked with navigating is a pretty thin gruel — just a rote criminal conspiracy involving drug deals, real estate fraud, and crooked cops. You’ll know who the villain is when you clock that he’s one of the only other ‘name’ actors of note in the whole enterprise, but I won’t spoil it here — jump over to IMDb if you’re curious. I will say it’s not Marc Maron (grouchy cameo) or frickin’ Post Malone (genuinely inexplicable cameo), though, so process of elimination should do the heavy lifting for you.
Spenser Confidential is nothing more than an utterly undemanding dad movie. It barely demands consciousness, let alone close attention. Even now, much of it is starting to fade from memory, like a middling episode of an old cop show — which is, really, what it’s a palimpsest of. Don’t hesitate to throw it on if you’ve got a couple of hours that could stand to fall off the clock, but don’t expect it to have any impact whatsoever. The sequel hook dangling at the end should be cut loose with extreme prejudice.
2.5 / 5 – Alright
Reviewed by Travis Johnson
Spenser Confidential is currently streaming on Netflix