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‘Spenser Confidential’ review: Dir. Peter Berg (2020)

Mark Wahlberg joins the Netflix game with Boston set detective story Spenser Confidential, reteaming with his Lone Survivor/Patriots Day/Deepwater Horizon/Mile 22 director Peter Berg. 

Daniel McFadden/Netflix

The ‘Berg partnership has been a strange mixed bag. Starting out with a series of well-made docu-dramas of real-life disasters, the last film the pair made was Mile 22: a loud, violent, incoherent action movie that failed to kick off a franchise. It looks like they’re trying out the franchise game again with a new home at Netflix and an adaptation of the adventures of Robert B. Parker’s detective Spenser; a hot-headed former boxer, former cop turned private detective.

Spenser (Wahlberg) has spent five years in prison for beating up a police captain he suspected of being corrupt. Once out of prison, he sets about living a normal life and hitting the road. But when that same police captain is found dead the day after Spenser’s release, with an honest cop being put in the frame for it, Spenser feels compelled to seek out the truth. Teaming up with Hawk (Winston Duke), a promising fighter he’s helping to train, they set out to expose a level of corruption that goes way further than they could have imagined.

There’s a lot of other ingredients from different detective movies scattered about throughout Spenser Confidential. It being set in Boston and following a tale of corruption, there are elements of The Departed and The Town, while the buddy cop elements bring to mind the likes of 48 Hours and Lethal Weapon, with a little bit of the vigilante spirit of Jack Reacher thrown in for good measure. If collecting those films together sounds like a bit of a weird mish-mash, that’s because the film itself feels a bit of an odd mix in itself, never quite working as either a gritty mystery or a buddy cop movie.

Spenser Confidential is at one moment a silly caper with Wahlberg and Duke taking out bad guys in big loud shootouts, and then the next it’s a pondering mystery drama, that has moments of brutal violence that leaves one feel more uncomfortable than entertained, right before zipping back to a punchup scored to ‘County Road’. That’s what I call whiplash. Even as a mystery, it’s not particularly involving. There’s a lot of meandering scenes of Wahlberg gazing around the crime scene, where we are left to assume he’s doing some master deduction, but then these moments never really cohere into something all that tangible or enlightening that propels the story along in a way that feels revelatory and exciting.

The Bergs want to have their cake and eat it too. They want to make a police mystery that works in elements of corruption and the Boston economy, whilst also trying to be a funny buddy cop movie about a couple of guys taking the law into their own hands to do the right thing and kick some ass along the way. Sadly, it’s never particularly smart enough to be that involving as a mystery, a bit too choppy in its action scenes to be that thrilling, and neither is it funny enough to match up as a buddy movie. It doesn’t help that it is more concerned as a Wahlberg central flick than it is one that balances a double act. Performance-wise, Wahlberg is reliably solid, and Duke is perfectly fine at doing the gentle giant routine, but they never spark as a worthy duo. Elsewhere, Alan Arkin provides a nice level of disinterested sarcasm to the proceedings, while Iliza Shlesinger as Spenser’s on again off again girlfriend tries to liven up a role that fails to spark much comedic chemistry.

Ultimately, Spenser Confidential is something of a tonally awkward Jack Reacher wannabe, that lacks that film’s sophistication and level of self-awareness. There is always something of an appeal seeing Wahlberg work in his own Boston backyard, but this is once again a messy franchise kickstarter hopeful from The Berg partnership that suffers too much of an identity crisis to prove to be all that entertaining.

Spenser Confidential is now playing on Netflix.


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