“Doing a little private investigating?” asks an FBI agent of the title character played by Mark Wahlberg in the Netflix reboot of Robert B. Parker’s iconic private detective character. “I haven’t really come up with a title yet for what I’m doing,” Spenser replies.
That sense of aimlessness sums up the essence of Spenser Confidential, which arbitrarily and perversely jettisons so much of what fans of Parker’s 40 novels and the ’80s-era television series Spenser: For Hire came to know and love. Other than the obvious star power, this tired action-comedy directed by the actor’s frequent collaborator Peter Berg feels more like the pilot of a short-lived summer broadcast television series than the film franchise to which it clearly aspires.
More retread than revamp.
The film is based not on one of Parker’s original books but rather Robert B. Parker’s Wonderland, one of eight mystery novels written by crime reporter Ace Atkins, who took over the series after Parker’s death. This adaptation, however, isn’t even particularly faithful to Atkins’ book, which makes you wonder why they even bothered procuring the rights.
Longtime fans will know that this is a very different Spenser from the opening minutes, which presents him as a former cop serving a five-year prison sentence for assaulting a police captain, John Boylan (Michael Gaston). Spenser probably didn’t help himself when it came to his sentencing by announcing, “The son of a bitch deserved it.” The reason for his brutal beat-down of his superior is revealed later in the film, and, needless to say, his actions were totally justified.
The story begins with Spenser just about to be released, although not before engaging in a violent skirmish with several neo-Nazis whom he dispatches with ease. It’s but one of many, many knock-down, drag-out fights in the film, including the sort of barroom brawl that seems de rigueur for old Westerns or modern movies set in South Boston.
After reuniting with his old friend, boxing gym owner Henry (Alan Arkin, doing his patented wry, Alan Arkin thing), Spenser meets another character familiar from the books, Hawk. Except that this Hawk, blandly played by Winston Duke (Black Panther), is very different from the original. He’s a health food- and animal-loving MMA fighter, who’s renting a room from Henry and dresses like a very overgrown (at one point, a little boy asks him if he’s a giant) adolescent.
The rudimentary storyline devised by screenwriters Sean O’Keefe and Brian Helgeland is set in motion when Boylan is murdered almost immediately after Spenser’s release from prison. When a seemingly virtuous cop is suspected of the crime and becomes an apparent suicide, Spencer resolves to clear the cop’s name and identify the real culprit. Fueled by tips from a sardonic investigative reporter (a shaggy Marc Maron, not exactly playing against type), his investigation leads him to a conspiracy involving crooked cops and the casino construction project dubbed Wonderland.
Spenser Confidential seems to be aiming for a buddy-film, action-comedy vibe, but the problems are that there’s virtually no chemistry between Spenser and Hawk, the gags (many of them revolving around Spenser’s deepest relationship seeming to be with his dog) are lame at best, and the action is strictly pro forma. Director Berg attempts to keep things light by underscoring many sequences with vintage pop songs, but throwing Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline” on the soundtrack during a barroom brawl doesn’t prove the soul of wit.
Another failed attempt at comic relief comes in the form of Spenser’s relentlessly potty-mouthed girlfriend (comedian Iliza Shlesinger), who is presumably meant to be rudely endearing but instead merely grates. For the record, the film also marks the screen debut of rapper Post Malone (under his real name, Austin Post), who mainly acts with his voluminous facial tattoos.
Wahlberg and Berg have worked together very successfully in the past, most notably with Lone Survivor and Patriots Day, but they both seem to be going through the motions here. You get the feeling that they resurrected Spenser not so much from a fondness for the character but rather because it gave them the opportunity to work again in Boston (to their credit, however, they actually filmed in the city rather than decamping to Canada).
They certainly seem to think they’ve produced a budding franchise, as evidenced by the film’s ending that so blatantly advertises a sequel that there might as well have been a James Bond-style announcement, “Spenser will be back in —.” They may be right, since movie stars appearing on Netflix (Will Smith, Adam Sandler, Sandra Bullock, etc.) often produce viewership of astronomical proportions. But everyone involved will have to step up their game if they expect those viewers to stick around for future installments.
Production companies: Original Film, Closest to the Hole, Leverage Entertainment, Film 44
Cast: Mark Wahlberg, Winston Duke, Alan Arkin, Iliza Shlesinger, Michael Gaston, Bokeem Woodbine, Marc Maron, James Dumont, Austin Post, Colleen Camp
Director: Peter Berg
Screenwriters: Sean O’Keefe, Brian Helgeland
Producers: Neal H. Moritz, Toby Ascher, Mark Wahlberg, Stephen Levinson, Peter Berg
Executive producers: Bill Bannerman, John Logan Pierson, Eric Heffron
Director of photography: Tobias Schliessler
Production designer: Neil Spisak
Costume designer: Virginia B. Johnson
Editor: Mike Sale
Composer: Steve Jablonsky
Casting: Sheila Jaffe
Rated R, 110 minutes