It was only a matter of time. Mark Wahlberg, one of the world’s most famous Boston natives, portrayed as an invincible action hero who sets out to reveal the corruption at a Boston precinct? He’s probably wanted to make this exact movie since he was 13 years old. Spenser Confidential, Netflix’s latest foray into big-budget action fare, is a loud, fun, dumb, campy film that is as much a throwback as it is a contemporary attempt for the streaming service to beef up its library. The story centers on Spenser (Wahlburg), a Boston detective who has just been released from prison.
In a clever opening, we get well-packaged exposition on the background of his crime – he assaulted an officer who may have been guilty of murder. In just 2 minutes, the movie establishes Spenser as a badass, but one with flaws – anger issues and a hero’s complex. Once out, he moves in with a friend but has to room with Hawk (Winston Duke), a reticent stranger who is just as territorial as Spenser.
Meanwhile, a series of deaths involving individuals from Spenser’s past has him suspicious that something quite sinister is going on, and the news reports aren’t nearly what they seem. This leads Spenser down a rabbit hole of dirty cops, backstabbing friends, and a slew of criminals (behind bars or otherwise) that have the answers needed to crack the case. But while Spenser Confidential throws a lot of plot at the audience, the film isn’t very efficient at distributing it. On paper, the story is very simplistic, but the film is so verbose and plodding while getting all the details out there that you feel things are being padded out to hit a desired run time. This is most apparent during an excursion with a rabid canine. No seriously, the movie just stops so we can watch Mark Wahlburg get terrorized by a dog. It is very bizarre.
The banal dramatization of the plot, combined with a soundtrack composed by the shuffle button, makes watching the film a weird experience. It grabs your attention, but is never all that exciting, which makes the decision to shroud the plot in mystery a miscalculation. Which is a shame because no matter what genre of film you can think of, it’s always made better by it’s ‘mystery’ sub-genre. Action-Mystery. Horror-Mystery. Cop-Mystery. Parody-Mystery. Just wait, superhero movies will board this train eventually! But the scheme at the center of Spenser Confidential belongs in a 90’s episode of The Simpsons that parodies cop movies. It’s not that interesting when played straight, and it’s certainly not worth such convoluted storytelling.
The character depictions and their interactions with each other are hit or miss, resembling that weird energy found in TV pilots before the showrunners figured out what the character dynamics needed to be. Wahlberg is mostly fine here (this performance will only work for you if you’re already a fan), an infallible action hero who can win any fight, with the deduction skills of Sherlock Holmes. He also has a hilariously gratuitous long take where he slowly walks down a hallway shirtless because you have to give the people what they want.
Winston Duke’s character is a mishmash of personalities that is at once familiar as well as it is strange and unrelatable. He reminds me slightly of people I’ve encountered, who enact weird rituals on mundane routines, while somehow maintaining the emotions of “carefree” and “perpetually annoyed” at the exact same time. But it never hits a stride, and he never has a scene where his character takes center stage. His chemistry with Wahlberg is also lacking; it neither’s fault, but the energy each actor brings does not mesh with each other.
But the MVP is Cissy (Iliza Shlesinger), Spenser’s estranged (foul-mouthed) ex. Every time she’s in the movie, it’s a breath of fresh air despite her… interesting Boston accent. Whenever the film gets too bogged down with how seriously it takes things, Cissy arrives as if she’s from a different movie, spouting profanity and barely decipherable anecdotes. “I got poodles coming out of my ass” is probably the least obscene quote I can write here, and she does have a great deal of chemistry with Wahlberg. The only downside is the film tries to work a subplot where Cissy calls Spenser out for being “incapable of real intimacy.” Not only does it come out of nowhere, but it never really goes anywhere.
Speaking of which, Spenser’s entire arc feels like it’s paid lip service rather than experienced. By the end, we’re meant to believe that Spenser has grown from an erratic crusader who wrongfully breaks the law in the name of justice to a guy who should be lauded for doing things a little bit more by the book. Yet, I’m left wondering if I watched a different movie – where was this courageous journey? Because the movie I saw featured Spenser routinely beating and/or running people over in the name of a case he wasn’t even assigned to. That’s the cinematic experience I had.
Spenser Confidential is a sub-par but fun little bit of junk food. A dopey little action-comedy that works as an exercise to kill time, but not worth much more than that. But I doubt anyone expected much else, as Netflix continues to perfect the B- movie. Here’s hoping, if the film gets a sequel, we’ll get a case worth solving.