The 80s saw three seasons of the reliably entertaining and comforting private eye series, Spenser: For Hire. Like the better and better-remembered The Rockford Files (1974-1980) and Magnum, P.I. (1980-1988) before it, the show benefits from a charismatic and amiable lead actor bringing an equally likable lead character to life. Viewers respond to the mix of personality, investigative skills, and an uncanny ability to get both into and out of scrapes, and while other factors come into play it’s that appeal that makes these shows. That’s all to say that while Mark Wahlberg is no Robert Urich, James Garner, or Tom Selleck, he is playing the lead in the new Netflix Original movie, Spenser Confidential.
Spenser (Wahlberg) is nearing the end of a prison sentence for assaulting a police officer, but before he leaves he gets a warning from some of the other inmates in the form of his attempted murder. They tell him to leave Boston sooner rather than later, and as Spenser returns to civilization, that’s exactly what he intends to do. He moves in temporarily with his old mentor Henry (Alan Arkin) and new roommate Hawk (Winston Duke), but before he can get his trucking license and move to Arizona to start his future he discovers that the past isn’t quite done with him. Spenser was a cop too once upon a time, and when two police officers are murdered he finds himself drawn into a conspiracy related to his own recent incarceration. Can he and Hawk crack the case without pissing off his still-angry ex Cissy (Iliza Schlesinger)? You’ll have to tune in to find out!
Spenser Confidential is the fifth collaboration between Wahlberg and director Peter Berg, and while their first four — Lone Survivor (2013), Deepwater Horizon (2016), Patriots Day (2016), and Mile 22 (2018) — are all bigger and/or more dramatic fare, it’s clear the two share a sensibility here for the more relaxed, silly, and simple. The film features fights and mayhem aplenty, but none of it lands with any real weight by design. It’s a fluff film, and that’s no criticism as even light entertainment has its place.
While creator Robert B. Parker delivered an impressive forty novels focused on the character, his death in 2010 saw his publisher and estate move forward with new Spenser novels from a new writer. Ace Atkins has written nine since then, and it’s his 2013 release, Robert B. Parker’s Wonderland, that gets the adaptation treatment here. The mystery, as adapted, is fairly straightforward and delivers no real surprises in its paint by numbers plot, but the script by Sean O’Keefe and Brian Helgeland finds its strongest foothold in giving Wahlberg’s Spenser plenty of bottled up anger and frustration to play around with. The film is an action/comedy, and even there it leans heavier towards the latter thanks to banter and physical comedy born of Wahlberg getting his ass handed to him several times throughout.
Wahlberg is no stranger to comedy, and his otherwise “tough guy” persona serves the humor well as he plays straight man to the nonsense erupting around him. Duke’s career is relatively younger, but it’s already clear that he handles the comedy with equal energy and laid-back verve. The stand-out, though, is Schlesinger who walks a fine line with her Boston ex-girlfriend from hell who’s actually in the right in being pissed off at Spenser and friends. She’s a firecracker filled with attitude and spirit, and as a foil for Wahlberg she’s pretty much perfection.
The comedy and relaxed atmosphere do most of the heavy lifting here as Berg and friends keep things relatively tame throughout on the action front. There are the handful of fights, mostly fist and foot focused — a bit involving someone kicking Spenser delivers some laughs — while a gun fight and sequence involving a semi truck mark the only real centerpieces. It’s an interesting comparison to Netflix’s other outing by a big-name action director, Michael Bay’s 6 Underground (2019), but whereas that film went heavy on the action (and heavier on the CG) Berg’s debut with the streamer instead feels far cheaper and more low-key. It’s also the better of the two films in part because its smaller scale allows time for slightly more intimate character work.
Spenser Confidential lacks a serious bone in its body and feels every bit like a TV movie diversion destined to be forgotten in a few weeks time, but it works well enough to leave viewers entertained and open to further adventures. Barring a sequel, though, some of us would be just as happy with a Cissy-focused spin-off as she’s half the piss ‘n vinegar fun anyway.