A film review by Craig J. Koban March 22, 2020


2020, R, 110 mins.


Mark Wahlberg as Spenser  /  Alan Arkin as Henry Cimoli  /  Winston Duke as Hawk  /  Colleen Camp as Mara  /  Iliza Shlesinger as Cissy

Directed by Peter Berg  /  Written by Brian Helgeland and Sean O'Keefe 


The new Netflix produced action comedy SPENSER CONFIDENTIAL is ever-so-loosely based on the Ace Atkins novel WONDERLAND, which in turn used character names from the detective series by Robert B. Parker (that work was appropriated into the mid to late 80s TV series SPENSER: FOR HIRE with Robert Urich.  

Still with me?

It seems that the makers of this film were hoping for it to springboard a new franchise, but it becomes abundantly clear very early on in SPENSER: CONFIDENTIAL that it's really not up to creative  speed as far as solid whodunnits are concerned.  That, and this represents the fifth team-up of director Peter Berg and star Mark Wahlberg, coming off of initially good films like LONE SURVIVOR, DEEPWATER HORIZON, and PATRIOT DAYS, only to see them hit rock bottom with last year's awful MILE 22.  After watching SPENSER CONFIDENTIAL I was left wondering how this pairing - despite a decade of working together - is producing more pictures of increasing diminishing returns instead of, well, getting better at their partnership. 

It's all too bad, as Wahlberg and Berg have most certainly made good films together and apart, not to mention that their latest together also boasts a screenplay adaptation co-written by Brian Helgeland (L.A. CONFIDENTIAL and MYSTIC RIVER), so my interests were peaked going in.  SPENSER CONFIDENTIAL, to its modest credit, doesn't waste time with character and story introductions.  Very early on we meet the film's resident bad boy anti-hero in Spenser (Wahlberg), who's serving half a decade in prison for an illegal beat down of a suspect while serving as a police officer.  The opening scene with Spenser shows that he's not a fully reformed prisoner, seeing as he shows no hesitation in throwing down with a bunch of Aryan Brotherhood convicts that want to send him off during his last days of incarceration in bloody style.  In the ultra convenient world of this film, Spenser seems to escape this situation consequence free and still manages to parole on time. 



He has dreams, though, on the outside to leave his home of Boston for Arizona in hopes of being a trucker.  He's reunited with and supported upon leaving prison by his elder buddy in Henry (a snarky Alan Arkin, a bright spot in the film, harnessing his Alan Arkin-ness to full satisfying effect).  Spenser tries to keep himself clean to the best of this abilities on the outside and devotes his time away from trucker trainer to helping Henry train an up-and-coming MMA fighter that resides with them, Hawk (Winston Duke).  Unfortunately, Spenser's relatively quite life of normalcy is turned upside down when he learns that the man he violently assaulted years ago (a high ranking police official that led to his imprisonment) has shown up brutally murdered, along with a far less crooked cop.  Spenser smells an immediate rat while trying to fend off detectives that believe he may have had something to do with the killings.  Deciding that he needs a fellow partner in sleuthing, Spenser teams up with Hawk to track down the necessary clues to find out who was behind this heinous double murder, using all methods (legal or otherwise) possible. 

One of the fundamental problems with SPENSER CONFIDENTIAL is that, as a basic detective yarn, it's simply not very compellingly written, which has a lot to do with the fact that the central mystery to be unraveled that's contained here isn't as intoxicating as it should have been (plus, the inevitable "big reveals" that highlight the film's latter acts are pretty overtly telegraphed and can be seen from a mile away).  Helgeland and co-writer Sean O'Keefe rarely throw any unexpected curveballs at audience members, leaving the most humbly attentive being able to deduce the key evil power players early on and with minimal fuss.  All we're essentially left with is the budding bromance between Spenser and Hawk, who are shown using blunt force trauma first and asking questions a distant second.  Some of the film's humor is well placed, especially in showing how Spenser seems oblivious to aspects of the outside technological world (granted, he was only in jail for five years, so how would he have never heard of "the cloud"?).  There are some meaty laughs here at Spenser's obliviousness, and Wahlberg, to his credit, can play breathless obliviousness to amusing effect with the best of them. 

Still, SPENSER CONFIDENTIAL most definitely doesn't ask much of the 48-year-old actor, who cockily parades around much of the film on bland autopilot (attempts on his part at verbal zingers and physical comedy are anemic at best).  Poor Winston Duke fares even worse, and the BLACK PANTHER and US actor has demonstrated ample charismatic range on his recent film resume, but here he seems disappointingly saddled with an underwritten sidekick role of very limited substance.  He and Wahlberg don't have much in the area of on-screen macho chemistry either, which further hurts the proceedings.  Outside of the aforementioned and welcoming presence of Alan Arkin, the only other bright performance spot here is Iliza Shlesinger as Spenser coarse talking ex-wife Cissy, who seems to understand that she's playing a pretty flimsy, beleaguered wife character and instead infuses in her some hyperactive intensity that gives her scenes with Wahlberg a much needed jolt of interest. 

I've said it many times before and I'll say it again: Peter Berg is a good director that just so happens to make some deeply forgettable to awful films in-between some of his finer work.  When he brings his A-game (like in DEEPWATER HORIZON) he's an unstoppable force.  In disposable dreck like MILE 22, though, it's like he's masquerading as a low rent Michael Bay wanna-be.  Berg's technically assured fingerprints aren't really anywhere to be found in SPENSER CONFIDENTIAL, outside of his obvious and negative predilection towards uncoordinated visual chaos over editorial fluidity (many of the fight and action sequences here are a blur of sloppy choreography).  The end result is a film that ironically feels like it was made for small screen consumption as opposed to one that feels big and expansive that just so happens to be premiering on a streaming channel.  There's an undeniable TV movie of the week look and vibe to SPENSER CONFIDENTIAL that's hard to shake, and especially when one is reminded that this marks Berg and Wahlberg's fifth partnership in a decade.  I know I keep emphasizing that point...but...like...yikes. 

One last thing.  There's too much white savior signaling in SPENSER CONFIDENTIAL that left a bad taste in my mouth.  The titular white hero is gung ho about finding the real murderer of a fallen black officer on top of the other killed white officer, which is problematic enough.  But then there are so many scenes in SPENSER CONFIDENTIAL that has its white hero from Beantown maliciously laying violent smackdowns on a whole lot of people of color, most of whom are presented as broad gang banger stereotypes.  Wahlberg has a fairly sordid past criminal history of his own when it comes to hate crimes (for assaulting multiple Vietnamese men on the streets in 1988).  Obviously, the actor has made concentrated efforts to personally atone for such hellish actions, but there's something unsavory and crude about witnessing him playing characters that beat up minorities.  SPENSER CONFIDENTIAL ends on a would-be confident note that tips off a potential sequel.  For me, when the end credits rolled by I was all in favor of closing the book on this detective franchise for good.  

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