While watching Spenser Confidential on Netflix for this review, I kept thinking about the fate of movies and their ultimate goal. Sure every movie sets out to be great, to be memorable or to be on some list somewhere that praises it for its brilliance. Of course, that’s the modus operandi but few movies end there. After that, you hope to carve out a little niche among viewers. Can you land in a zone where a certain type of viewer/fan will pick up on what you were throwing out?
After that, you might be hoping your movie can just be “interesting” in a way that makes you a reference point for someone later on. Hell, if you don’t fall into one of the categories above, maybe it wouldn’t be the worst thing to be laughably bad, bottom-of-the-barrel stuff that makes you tongue-in-cheek funny. There are other categories, of course, these are only some of the ways movies can go.
The very worst thing you can be as a movie is boring and forgettable. Falling in this zone is a difficult pit to climb out of. It means ending your production in some sort of film purgatory that’s overflowing with flicks that mesh into each other with no distinguishable features. They become part of the greater movie landscape without ever standing out. It’s true limbo. Unfortunately, this is exactly where Spenser Confidential lands.
The Netflix film Spenser Confidential stars Mark Wahlberg and is directed by Peter Berg. This is the pair’s fifth film with generally favorable results. They teamed up on Patriots Day, Deepwater Horizon and Lone Survivor, all of which received critical acclaim and told riveting real-life tales of heroism in the face of world-changing events. Things started to come apart with Mile-22, a 2018 action film that bombed with critics mostly because it failed to stand out in a sea of bland action flicks.
In some ways, Spenser Confidential picks up where Mile-22 one left off. It’s a cookie-cutter crime-thriller with a little comedy backbone. Spenser (Wahlberg) is an ex-cop from Boston who five years earlier was put in jail for beating up his superior officer when he found the latter was beating on his wife.
We catch up with Spenser on the day of his release, sitting in the prison library reading up on cactuses and generally making himself a reformed convict. Here he catches a moderate beating at the hands of white supremacists, led by a surprisingly fitting Post Malone.
The reason I mention the opening fight, is that this a running theme for the movie. Wahlberg who plays an ex-cop, but also a former boxer gets his ass-kicked at an alarming rate in Spenser Confidential. Turns out there’s a lot of folks who want to rough him up. Sure, he usually gets the best of them, but not before taking some lumps.
After release, Spenser heads back “home” to live with his mentor Henry (Alan Arkin). Their relationship is never really explained, but Henry runs a boxing gym so I’ll assume that’s where they know each other. At Henry’s house he’s also given a roommate named Hawk (Winston Duke). The whole thing is nonsensical and completely unexplained but no one seems to care too much about providing clarity. They all know each other, have some animosity, care about each I suppose, and that’s all you need to know too.
And yes, you’re beaten over the head with the Boston themes. Berg and company are intent on you never forgetting, for a second, that you’re in this city. We get the obligatory sweeps over the landmarks, shots of Fenway Park, heavy accents, more references to the Red Sox and Fenway, and even some of Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline”. All of the Boston boxes are checked early and often. Even these “little” things, meant to lend a sense of time and place, feel taken from other films.
What ensues is a largely laughable (in a bad way) movie about corrupt cops, local crime guys, gangs and all the other staples you get in buddy-cop dramas. None of it feels original, storylines aren’t given any depth and what comes out is a paint-by-numbers approach to moviemaking.
The biggest issue for Spenser Confidential is that it wants to be so many things with elements of different movie types without being particularly good at any of them. It wants to be a mystery crime thriller but you never really care about the larger premise. It wants to be a buddy comedy, but you never really care about the relationship between Spenser and Hawk. It wants to be suspenseful, but you are never really worried about the final moments.
It wants to be a comedy, and on this front is probably where it gets closest to the goal. There are for sure some laugh-out-loud moments with Wahlberg in particular who has a knack for the snark when the timing calls for it. Iliza Shlesinger steals a scene or two as his hard-charging ex-girlfriend pet groomer, Cissy. I could have used a few more scenes with her.
Berg does put some of his trademark moves in, and I appreciated them. The music is great, lead by Explosions in Sky which he’s used before in Friday Night Lights (among others). The cinematography, by and large, looks and feels great. It’s a well-shot film by a guy who gets this sort of thing. I wish it was enough to make up for some of Spenser Confidential’s failings.
Netflix’s Spenser Confidential is a largely forgettable film because it never lands in any one particular zone. Six months from now there’s a good chance I forget I’ve ever seen it. Because it has so many other tropes and elements of other movies, Berg’s film feels like a song you’ve mashed together or a book you listened to on tape. And in the end, that’s movie limbo. Not a great place to be, but it’s there because it’s not all that good of a movie.