With movie theatres shuttering, social distancing the new normal, and new releases being yanked, at first glance it seems there is a dearth of original movie content for the next while. However, streaming services like Amazon Prime, Disney+ and Netflix release new original movies constantly. Netflix is basically its own studio, putting out original movies at least once a week. Their biggest profile release in March is Spenser Confidential, an adaptation of the Spenser mystery novels and the ‘80s TV show Spenser For Hire.
This is a pretty standard R-rated buddy cop movie starring Mark Wahlberg directed by his frequent collaborator, Peter Berg. There’s a weirdly jarring tonal issue with Spenser Confidential, it wants to be a wacky buddy cop romp but it gets a wee bit too serious, dour, and gruesome which clashes harshly with the funny. It is a movie that bounces all over the place and never quite settles on a consistent vibe, but for foul-mouthed action quips, it’s definitely okay. Netflix seems to specialize in a lot of movies that are just okay.
Former cop Spenser (Mark Wahlberg) is sent to jail for brutally beating on his captain, the crooked Boylan (Michael Gaston) and five years later when he gets out all of his cop buddies hate him, aside from Spenser’s former partner, Driscoll (Bokeem Woodbine). Now living with the elderly Henry (Alan Arkin) and his new, weird roommate Hawk (Winston Duke), Spenser is training as a truck driver while dodging his ex-girlfriend, Cissy (Iliza Shlesinger). When Spenser hears that Boylan and a good cop have turned up dead he decides to investigate, leading to a vast conspiracy that Spenser and his new partner, Hawk, get into a bunch of brawls to solve.
Tone is something this movie struggles with from the opening that shows Spenser engaging in a brutal beat down that is presented as pure righteous fury and then it cuts to Spenser in the joint with some wacky action comedy featuring Wahlberg and a prison tough played by Post Malone. Then there’re brutal murder scenes, a gruesome discovery of a body, and then it’s back to Henry gruffly laying down the rules for mismatched roommates Spenser and Hawk. Bouncing between tones can be fun but it takes a deft hand, this is just jarring. When the movie settles into funny scenes like Alan Arkin making dry remarks or Shlesinger dropping the movie’s best line about “two grown adults running around playing Batman” it works. An old pro like Arkin enlivens things with his snippy attitude although Shlesinger is basically playing a shrew ex cliché with an exaggerated Baw-Ston accent which gets grating.
Wahlberg as Spenser is doing his blue collar guy from Boston that is remarkably similar to other blue collar guy characters from Boston that he has played throughout his career. When he does crazy intensity in comedy it can work but here the crazy intensity is supposedly dramatic. There are still fun moments, since Spenser was in jail for years he doesn’t quite know what cloud storage is so while trying to be a badass all he does is rip up a cable box. Also, there’s a scene where Spenser gets amorous with his former girlfriend in a bathroom that is supposed to be played for laughs but it just feels awkward, as the scene ping-pongs from silly groaning to heartfelt rumination on love lost. There are moments when Wahlberg’s action jock schtick is lame, like in a climatic fight he tosses away his gun just so there can be a physical brawl with the bad guy. Also, at one point he makes a citizen’s arrest but it’s robbed of it’s power because it feels like he’s pretending to be a cop while he isn’t one anymore.
Spenser’s partner in fighting crime is Duke’s Hawk and he basically steals every scene he’s in by not saying much and just putting out an endearing weird vibe. Oddly, he has one of the movie’s only genuinely emotional scenes where a kid finds his room as been tossed by bad guys so he meekly asks Hawk if he’s a giant and if he can help him. Sure, it’s an easy sympathy move to have a kid look up the big weird guy to help him but it works. Hawk’s random pronouncements and laid back attitude make for a good counterbalance to Wahlberg’s intensity. The two have good chemistry, so much so that it’s kind of baffling that the movie sidelines the duo so much to make Spenser the lead. Woodbine as Spencer’s only cop friend does some interesting stuff with a small part and he gets to be more important as the film goes on.
The brutality of some of the crime scenes is more off-putting than dramatic, especially an extended flashback scene of Spenser remembering a victim that is just gratuitous. The action fares better when it goes for up close smashing chaos, like when Hawk takes on a whole crew of machete wielding goons, or when Hawk ends an action scene abruptly by driving through a window. While Spenser Confidential may be yet another attempt to reboot a franchise that nobody remembers, it succeeds in fits and bursts. It’s not as much action fun as is promised but it is enough.
Directed by Peter Berg
Starring Mark Wahlberg, Winston Duke and Alan Arkin