Film Review – Spenser Confidential
Let me paint a picture for you. We open on a concrete building, surrounded by a barbed wire fence, with armed guards posted at watch towers. Inside, people in brown jumpsuits live in confined spaces behind metal bars. Based on this description, what would you guess this place to be? The funny thing about Spenser Confidential (2020) is that – despite giving us establishing shots, it still felt the need to plaster the word “PRISON” right up on screen.
This sets the tone for the rest of the film – a drawn out, mundane, buddy-cop mystery that feels more like a second-rate TV pilot. Director Peter Berg and star Mark Wahlberg have teamed up for their fifth collaboration, with this arguably their most disappointing effort yet. It’s based on a series of mystery novels from author Robert B. Parker, but the screen adaptation (written by Sean O’Keefe and Brian Helgeland) plays like roll call of Mark Wahlberg character tropes. Does he play a tough guy with a heart of gold from the Southie streets of Boston? Check. Does he have a take-no-gruff attitude? Check. Does he have a love interest who’s tougher than he is and sports a thicker Boston accent? Check and check. It’s a watered-down amalgamation of every other character Wahlberg has played before.
Spenser (Wahlberg) is an ex-cop fresh off of serving a five year stint for assaulting another officer for corruption. This puts him in a touchy position in his own neighborhood, where criminals hate him for putting them in jail and cops hate him for turning against the unspoken brotherhood of the police force. Spenser’s dream is to move to Arizona and drive semi-trucks for a living. Guess how well that plan turns out?
Try as he might, Spenser is often compelled to stay in town. He feels a connection with Henry (Alan Arkin) who runs an MMA gym and acts as a surrogate father. This, even when Henry loans out his room to prospective fighter Hawk (Winston Duke). There’s also the issue with Spenser’s on again/off again girlfriend Cissy (Iliza Shlesinger). Their relationship can go from yelling at each other to jumping in the sack a moment later. A quick rendezvous inside of a public bathroom highlights their complicated (and cringeworthy) dynamic.
Things get serious when fellow police officers – who have all had connections to Spenser – end up dead around the city. His strict moral code doesn’t allow him to walk away in the midst of trouble, and so Spenser takes it upon himself to follow the clues and try to expose those responsible for the crimes. This proves harder than anticipated, given that his reputation limits the resources available to him. A visit to a local bar ends with him having to fight off a gang of officers determined to convince him to leave. And so, he has to team up with unlikely cohorts (aka Hawk) to solve the case.
The rest of the film plays out as a traditional procedural, with Spenser and Hawk slowly digging further into their investigation. But as the narrative moves forward, we start noticing how lackadaisical all this feels. Berg – at the very least – is the kind of director that can maintain energy and momentum, but here everything operates at a slug’s pace. Characters move in slow motion. The writing never giving us anything new or fresh given the familiarity of this story. We see the plot twists coming from a mile away, and so we have to sit back and wait for the characters to catch up. Even the action scenes just kind of roll along in a humdrum manner, punctuated by comedic bits that never land. In one scene we have to endure Wahlberg engaging in the classic “Dog biting a character’s leg” slapstick routine. Not only is it not funny, but Berg decides to extend it far longer than it ever needed to be.
One of the main arcs involves Spenser and Hawk learning to get along and help each other out, but it’s mishandled. There is no chemistry between Wahlberg and Duke, they exist in the same physical space but never act like they make a connection. Part of the reason is that Duke is portrayed as a stoic, nearly mute blank slate. We learn nothing about him. His dialogue is so limited that he is never given the opportunity to express who he is. Outside of being bad at throwing a punch, what else is there to this guy? Instead of a friend, Duke is treated more like hired muscle for Spenser, barging into a scene to save the day like a personal bodyguard.
There is just way too much talent behind Spenser Confidential to produce something this forgettable. I’ll just take this is a brief hiatus for those involved – a quick respite toward bigger and better things. The mystery is not interesting, the characters are built with stock personalities, the comedy barely inducing a chuckle, and the action painfully dull. To say that this is an “Airplane Movie” would be an insult to Airplane Movies.