Spenser Confidential Mark Wahlberg

Spenser Confidential is so familiar, it may have been self-generated by Netflix’s AI

A shameless attempt to will a new franchise into being, the newest Mark Wahlberg / Peter Berg joint both suffers and benefits from how familiar it is.

It’s common knowledge that one of the many advantages Netflix has in the content game at the moment is data. More so than the sheer firepower of budget, stars, talent or even IP, having detailed data on everything that their subscribers consume is an ace-in-the-hole that simply didn’t exist before streaming.

To be perfectly honest, however, I’ve never really seen that reflected in Netflix’s original feature selection. Sure, it generates insane amounts of rom-coms that appeal to the broadest possible audience, but the big event movies that Netflix has produced have never felt that different from… well, all the other big event movies being produced.

That changed mere minutes into Spenser Confidential, an admittedly somewhat-coherent attempt at generating the ultimate Mark Wahlberg vehicle. It’s not even “the ultimate” in the sense that it aims to be the best or to transcend its roots; it aims to be the most Mark Wahlberg movie possible. Spenser Confidential is about as down-the-middle and safe as an action movie can be in 2020, but in a way, I have to respect that chutzpah.

Very loosely based on a character created by Robert B. Parker that spawned a series in the late ’80s starring Robert Urich, Spenser Confidential is shameless, dad-skewed pandering at its purest: a mix-and-match grouping of genres and genre elements (not to mention many faithful Netflix employees) sure to please even the most discerning middle-aged men. Again, this sounds like a put-down — but as a man hurtling towards middle age myself (ever since the day I was born, in fact), I have to appreciate that I will never truly bore of these sort of boilerplate detective stories. 

Spenser (he doesn’t have a last name — or a first name, I suppose, given that Spenser could well be his surname) is a former Boston cop who has just done five years in prison for aggravated assault on his former superior, Captain Boylan. He’s released back into the care of his mentor (Alan Arkin), who runs a halfway house for ex-cons in the heart of Southie. Spenser wants to leave the past behind and learn the long-haul driver trade, but on the very day of his release, the superior he assaulted is brutally murdered. The discovery of that body is almost immediately followed by the discovery of the body of another officer, who has seemingly killed himself after killing Boylan. Spenser knows that something’s fishy — because Spenser’s intuitions about people, as simplistic as they can be, are pretty much always correct — and he decides to take matters into his own hands, assisted by his MMA-fighting housemate Hawk (Winston Duke).

It’s already pretty on-the-nose to cast Wahlberg as a Boston cop. It’s doubly on the nose to cast him as a cocky, diminutive wiseass whose only real sin is caring too much about truth, justice and the American way. I don’t know enough about the original character to assess whether this is an accurate depiction or not, but it doesn’t exactly matter. This is a movie where Wahlberg takes on four Boston cops in the grotty bathroom of an Irish bar and has sex with his easily angered on-again, off-again love interest (Iliza Schelsigner) in the bathroom of a vegan restaurant. It’s a vehicle in the most uninhibited, confident manner,  truly unmotivated in anything not involving Wahlberg.

It helps that Wahlberg has his frequent collaborator Peter Berg handling directorial duties, although as a avowed Berg apologist (Deepwater Horizon is legitimately solid blockbuster filmmaking), even I have to admit that his skill has taken for the worse since the incomprehensible spastic nightmare that was Mile 22. Spenser Confidential is significantly more cohesive visually – if even a little boring – but it does sometimes fall victim to the same type of staccato construction that made Mile 22 such a chore. (There’s — inexplicably — another fucking sequence where cutting between two times and places is done so “seamlessly” that it’s impossible to know what the hell is going on in a straightforward dialogue scene.) 

Spenser sees Berg trying out all kinds of setpieces from MMA-inspired fights to car chases to an actually fairly inspired foot chase that gets completely foiled by the kind of raging guard dog that usually only nips at heels once or twice in the scene. The majority of Spenser, however, isn’t really an action movie — it’s a pretty rote buddy-cop movie featuring two extremely mumbly performances from Wahlberg and Duke. It can be a little funny and it’s not tremendously boring, but its momentum is purely functional from minute one. It feels like a pilot for a series that already exists — as if, somehow, the makers of a TV show only realized halfway through season 2 that they’d never made the “first” episode.

There is something weirdly comforting about the way Spenser Confidential barrels along with such happy-go-lucky abandon. It’s both devoid of stakes and clearly designed to be sequelized into oblivion, dropping in recurring characters portrayed by Marc Maron (as a cantankerous true-crime reporter who lives on a houseboat) and Post Malone (as Spenser’s reluctant man-on-the-inside prison buddy) that are simply seeds intended to grow into a plant for use later down the line. Frankly, it’s one of the most accurate adaptations of this kind of throwaway private eye novel — not because it adapts the source material with any kind of verve (I wouldn’t know, having not read it) but because it replicates the whole on-the-beach-or-on-the-can practicality of them with stunning accuracy. Considering that we can quite easily launch the Netflix app from those locations, it seems the metamorphosis is complete. ■

Spenser Confidential starring Mark Wahlberg is on Netflix as of Friday, March 6. Check it out here and watch the trailer below.

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Spenser Confidential starring Mark Wahlberg