Mark Wahlberg and Peter Berg re-team for a Boston crime saga that stacks up to "The Town" like "Cats" stacks up to "Singin' in the Rain."
A far cry from the previous four movies that Mark Wahlberg and director Peter Berg have made together (the two men Voltron-ing into a single creative entity that will henceforth be referred to as “WahlBerg”), the hilariously titled “Spenser Confidential” is a high-testosterone action thriller about a red-blooded, blue-collared, perpetually open-mouthed American patriot who decides to take matters into his own hands when some bad guys besmirch the good name of these United States. Just kidding — the only significant difference between this chaotic dreck and the likes of “Mile 22” is that “Spenser Confidential” is going straight to Netflix (and, one must assume, the only reason it’s going straight to Netflix is that Barstool Sports doesn’t have its own streaming platform. Yet).
Beyond that — and maybe a surprising cameo from Post Malone — there’s almost nothing about this ultra-disposable programmer that doesn’t feel derivative to the point of self-parody. By now, WahlBerg making a “funny” crime movie about an aggro ex-cop trying to sniff out corruption in South Boston is like if Wes Anderson made a “Succession”-esque screwball comedy about an inbred family jostling for control over a Bavarian tweed factory (alas, only one of those films will ever actually exist, and it’s the one that features a drunken bar fight set to “Sweet Caroline”).
Based on a Robert B. Parker character, and adapted from the series of novels that Ace Atkins wrote about him, “Spenser Confidential” tells the simple tale of a former detective named Spenser who got thrown in jail for beating the living hell out of a crooked higher-up in the Boston Police Department. The movie picks up five years later, when Spenser is assaulted by a couple of paid inmates on the last day of his prison stint. It’s a clear message that our man should leave town as soon as he can. “Get the fuck out of Massachusetts!” someone yells, but Wahlberg will never get the fuck out of Massachusetts. Wahlberg is Massachusetts!
The only place Spenser is going is to Alan Arkin’s house (Arkin plays his former boxing coach), where he’s forced to share a room with a giant heavyweight named Hawk (the ever-reliable Winston Duke, making fantastic use of his size). Together, this motley crew will try and solve the most obvious murder-mystery that co-writer Brian Helgeland (“L.A. Confidential”) has ever brought to the screen, while also trying to handle a cop (Bokeem Woodbine) who thinks Spenser might have been the culprit.
The only upside to “Spenser Confidential,” which courses with Big Overcompensation Energy from start to finish and seems to have been slapped together with all the artistry of a CBS pilot, is that it only takes itself a little more seriously than it should. That’s a big relief, considering what’s come before. Back in 2012, Wahlberg famously said that he would’ve stopped the United 93 hijackers had he been aboard that flight, and while the actor had the good sense to apologize for those remarks soon thereafter, it can be hard to shake the feeling that some of his grittier collaborations with Berg (e.g. “Lone Survivor” and “Patriot’s Day”) have been part of a bizarre attempt to back up that claim.
“Spenser Confidential” is too silly to set off the same alarm bells, if not quite silly enough to fully disabuse itself of the notion that its banal central mystery really matters. For instance: Wahlberg tries to cut through some guy’s lawn during the middle of a second act chase scene, only to be mauled — at length — by the homeowner’s German shepherd. After that, Marc Maron shows up to do his best “Spotlight” impression in the role of a paranoid journalist whose entire functions consists of finding 10 different ways to shout “this is fucked up, man!” And then there’s the magical sequence in which Spenser fights some machete-wielding gang members behind the counter of a Mexican restaurant, because it wouldn’t be a WahlBerg movie without its star killing some nameless people of color.
The rest of “Spenser Confidential” just can’t seem to match those staggering highs. Iliza Shlesinger does her best in a thankless performance as Spenser’s volatile old flame, but her performance feels like it’s in denial of the fact that Heidi Gardner parodied this character into dust with the “Every Boxer’s Girlfriend From Every Movie About Boxing Ever” bit that she did on “Saturday Night Live.” Arkin, Duke, Woodbine, and even Post Malone are all on the same page, as Berg has always had the ability to harness a certain jokey swagger from his cast (Duke is particularly good at playing off Wahlberg’s hostility, and the sequel threatened at the end of this film would be as smart to lean on him as he would be smart to pass on it). Alas, there’s only so much room to shine in a movie that routinely pauses the action so that Wahlberg can stand at a crime scene and squint at nothing for several minutes at a time, and “Spenser Confidential” is too enthralled by its leading man to create any secrets worth keeping. The result is a junky, paint-by-numbers crime saga that stacks up to “The Town” like “Cats” does to “Singin’ in the Rain.” It pains a lifelong New Yorker to say this, but Boston deserves better.
“Spenser Confidential” is now available to stream on Netflix.