Spenser Confidential (Peter Berg, 2020) – Full Original – Action Comedy
Spenser (Mark Wahlberg) lost his job as a Boston police officer after he assaulted his Captain (Mark Gaston); he also lost his freedom and had to serve five years in prison. When the Captain is murdered on the exact night of Spenser’s release from jail, he becomes the prime suspect. When another cop seems to have been framed for the murder, Spenser teams up with his former boxing mentor Henry (Alan Arkin), Henry’s new student Hawk (Winston Duke) and Spenser’s on-and-off girlfriend Cissy (Iliza Shlesinger) to solve the case, clear the framed police officer’s name and unearth the grand conspiracy behind it all.
Nearly a year to the date since Netflix released the star-laden action film Triple Frontier, the company would seem to be following a similar artistic and commercial strategy with its March release of Spenser Confidential. In place of Ben Affleck and Charlie Hunnam, we have in this film Mark Wahlberg – whose career seems to be a lower ebb than either of Triple Frontier’s main stars – and Winston Duke, whose star is on the rise. I was disappointed with Triple Frontier, but what about this new spring blockbuster? It is also quite a bit of a letdown, but at least it generates a few laughs along the way, as opposed to the dour gruntfest that was its predecessor, but really it is not all that better.
The film is ostensibly a mystery thriller based on the same books that gave rise to the 1980s television series Spenser: For Hire. But in this iteration the central mystery is a flimsy pretext to justify scene after scene of action movie violence and explosions. The exact balance of investigation and violence is neatly summed up when Hawk says at one point to Spenser, “you come back beaten up everyday, but with a little more information.” And so it goes, with a fight, shoot out or something of the like happening every 5-10 minutes, while Spenser inches forward in his investigation.
Fans of action films might at this point be saying something like “what’s wrong with that?”, and to be sure you would only watch a movie like this if you like action. The problem though is that these scenes are not all that well-constructed (shot, edited, etc.) and the screenplay does an exceedingly poor job justifying the spectacle. A scene that neatly illustrates both of these shortcomings is one in which Spenser is chasing a baddie and ends up in a long fight with…wait for it…someone’s pet German shepherd in a yard he is jumping through. This scene, which goes on for several minutes, is completely random artistically pointless (if it was meant to ironically reflect on Spenser’s love for dogs, then that love should have been established better). Worse for genre fans is that it is visually incoherent and quite obviously heavily edited to minimize the nearly 50 year-old Mark Wahlberg’s lack of mobility.
Let’s not blame Wahlberg for all the film’s poor action. Director Peter Berg, who has worked with Wahlberg extensively should have worked better with his star and just generally done better with the material. Not only did he botch the dogfight, but he wasted a great opportunity with a genuinely interesting fight scene in a taco bar. This slightly racist scene, which sees a gang of stereotyped Latino gang members ambush Spenser at a Chipotle-like restaurant, should have been a classic food fight sequence, but instead ends up being completely forgettable, besides the aforementioned racism.
Winston Duke does better in the action scenes, with his natural physique and agility evident throughout. But then Peter Berg overdoes these scenes with walls collapsing, windows breaking or furniture collapsing in nearly every shot. Speaking of Duke, his character is poorly written and his only serious development comes when he blurts out his entire backstory in a single scene. There was the chance of some good generational humor being generated by Hawk’s propensity for organic foods and environmentalism, but the screenwriters seem to have forgotten all about this after introducing it early on. On top of that, Duke and Wahlberg have nothing of the kind of chemistry needed to do the whole buddy action thing.
So the movie is clearly deficient in key ways, but it is for me not quite as bad as some of Netflix’s action films. The film’s saving grace for me is – ironically given the film’s unrelenting masculine posturing – its comic star Iliza Shlesinger. As one of the few women with dialog in the film, she already sticks out, but many of her jokes land, in particular some random ones about sodomy late in the film. To be sure, her role is a misogynist one, in that she is both the nagging girlfriend and the one who can’t resist Spenser’s supposed masculine appeal, but Shlesinger plays it well.
Cissy can’t save the movie though. Like so many Netflix original films, Spenser ends with the clear intention to leave room for a sequel, but let’s hope that this doesn’t come to pass. We need more adult-oriented action comedy films, but we deserve better than this.
Alan Arkin is one of the stars of the Netflix series The Kominsky Method. He is also in the voice cast for the Netflix series BoJack Horseman.
Iliza Shlesinger has four stand-up comedy specials on Netflix that are distributed as Netflix originals. She will also write and star in her own sketch comedy show for the streaming service.
Marc Maron is also one of the stars of the Netflix series GLOW and also appeared in the Netflix series Easy.
Peter Berg has signed on to direct all the episodes of Painkiller, an upcoming Netflix original mini-series.
Bokeem Woodbine also appears in the Netflix movie In the Shadow of the Moon.
Producer Neal Moritz and his production company Original Film also produce the Fast and Furious franchise, which includes the Netflix animated series Fast & Furious: Spy Racers. He will also produce the film Huck for Netflix, which will be part of the Millarworld universe.
Popular musician Post Malone makes his feature film acting debut in this film and does absolutely nothing that couldn’t have been done by an anonymous character actor. He has approximately 10 lines of dialogue and gets in one highly edited fight. His presence in the film thus seems completely motivated by marketing concerns.
Conspicuous Product Placement
Local Massachusetts ice cream chain Twist and Shake appears in the film and lingers on screen after the relevant action ends.