Movie Review: “Spenser Confidential”

The worst thing about the new Netflix original, “Spenser Confidential,” is that it is a single movie and not a regular series. Sure, Robert B. Parker’s Spenser character already had a television series, “Spenser: For Hire,” but this new team-up between director Peter Berg and actor Mark Wahlberg offers the sense that it so very much wants to be the first of many, not the one and only. It has the feel—and this is in no way meant in derogatory fashion—of a network movie of the week, albeit one with a higher budget, more blood, and worse language.

Although it is based on the 42nd book in the Spenser series, “Wonderland” by Ace Atkins, the movie makes this Spenser’s first P.I. case, as the newly-released-from-prison ex-cop, Spenser (Wahlberg), finds himself in the middle of an investigation of two murdered police officers. Teaming up with another ex-con, Hawk (Winston Duke), Spenser half rushes forward and is half dragged into the murders after he is questioned by his ex-partner and friend, Driscoll (Bokeem Woodbine).

In the end, the whole thing ties into bad cops, drug deals, Irish mobsters, machete-wielding villains, and a would-be casino. To say it is convoluted may be an understatement, but Berg keeps it all zipping along so that it works. The movie never lingers during any scene, and nothing feels extraneous – if something occurs in the movie it is because it is either developing Spenser as a character, germane to the story, or both. And, the vast majority of what occurs is enjoyable to watch.

Wahlberg is rather fantastic in the lead, giving us a character who operates from a strong moral center, even when that center gets him into more trouble than he can handle. Happily for him, in those moments when he is in over his head, Hawk isn’t far away and their landlord/friend, Henry (Alan Arkin), is happy to tell Spenser what he did wrong or should have done or to caution against the next move (or maybe even approve of it, depending on the situation, but always in a bemused fashion). Spenser’s ex-girlfriend, Cissy (Iliza Shlesinger), is also there to curse at, complain about, or generally ruffle Spenser’s feathers.

There is nothing whatsoever that is new in the above formulation, not the ex-cop haunted by the decisions he’s made, not the part where the cop turns to the life of a private investigator, not the bit where he works with another ex-con to set things right, not the hero getting beaten up repeatedly, nor his riding the moral high road hard enough that he finds himself occasionally sinking into the muck. In this case, the formula works because it is well-directed, well-acted, and convoluted enough to keep the audience intrigued.

It may be that part of my amusement with the affair comes from the fact that although I have seen a couple of episodes of the TV show and read at least one of the novels, I do not have a true prior connection with the character. I went into the movie expecting nothing from the character of Spenser nor Hawk. I certainly wasn’t looking to compare them with previous iterations, and cannot in any way speak with regard to how the characters compare with their antecedents. I can only say that watching their friendship grow over the course of the movie is immensely fun.

People complain about the amount of stuff Netflix puts out and the dismal quality of some of it. However, “Spenser Confidential” very much feels as though it is a movie worth watching, not that it is deep or inspiring or will cause you to look at the world in a new way, it’s just a detective story that runs less towards detecting and more towards giving us fun characters. It is something that would, perhaps, never get made for a wide theatrical release and yet with Peter Berg, Mark Wahlberg, Winston Duke, and more to its name (we haven’t even mentioned Marc Maron popping up a few times), it’s got a cast list and director that largely feels as though the movie’s budget would demand that wide release and yet be difficult to market. How would that go? “Remember those Jesse Stone made-for-tv movies with the guy from ‘Magnum, P.I.’ and ‘Spenser: For Hire’ with Robert Urich, those TV movies with Urich about the character, and the other Spenser TV movies with Joe Mantegna? Yeah, this is that kind of thing based on the novel written by the guy who took over writing the Spenser novels after Robert B. Parker passed away. It’s kind of a small story with an A-list cast, some well-placed humor, Alan Arkin is great in it (but when is he not?), and it has a bunch of bad words. Frankly, you could see it as a part of that old NBC Mystery Movie lineup, you know, the one that had ‘Columbo’ if that was still a thing.”

Somehow that doesn’t seem to work as a way to sell it, but watch the movie (it’s out on Netflix as of today) and see if you don’t find yourself wanting them to make another. You will.

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photo credit: Netflix



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