Director Peter Berg has apparently found his muse, helming five straight films with Mark Wahlberg in the lead. Three of them worked (Patriots Day, Deepwater Horizon, Lone Survivor), one didn’t (Mile 22), and the latest, Netflix original Spenser Confidential, falls squarely in between. Despite playing like every police-centered action thriller you’ve seen before, a handful of sporadic moments and characters combine to make the film a fairly entertaining bit of fun, particularly if you have nothing else to do and Netflix auto-starts it for you once you’re done binging season two of Altered Carbon.
Based very loosely on the novel Wonderland by Ace Adkins—who took over the Spenser series for the late Robert B. Parker—the film stars Wahlberg as the famous Boston PI. When we first meet him, though, he’s still an ex-cop and is wrapping up a five-year prison stint for beating the crap out of his crooked captain John Boylan (Michael Gaston). Though he moves back in with his old friend Henry (Alan Arkin), Spenser is eager to move to Arizona and become a truck driver, unsurprised that he’s become a pariah among his former law enforcement colleagues. He gets sucked back into that world, though, when a cop buddy is murdered and he realizes no one else in a corrupt department is going to get to the bottom of it.
So, with the help of Henry’s new lodger—the imposing behemoth Hawk (Winston Duke)—Spenser starts digging around. The last piece of the puzzle is Spenser’s feisty ex Cissy (Iliza Shlesinger), who keeps popping up at the most inopportune times before eventually pseudo-reconciling to help with the case.
As his investigation unfolds, Spenser ruffles the appropriate amount of feathers and naturally calls in his requisite favors, while also (of course) toying with the FBI agents on the case. And it wouldn’t be a proper police procedural without plenty of tussles with the bad guys, an inevitable third-act twist (which is fairly obvious from the outset), and an over-the-top, show-stopping final confrontation.
Indeed, the script from first-timer Sean O’Keefe (with re-writes by L.A. Confidential Oscar-winner Brian Helgeland) is clearly the weak link here. Rote scenes, corny one-liners, and one-dimensional characters abound, keeping the flick from emerging as the smart and inventive thriller it might have been.
Despite that, Spenser manages to squeak by as ultimately watchable, first and foremost because of Wahlberg, who has proven repeatedly that he can carry a movie on his back. (The weight from just his two Transformer movies would have crippled Atlas himself.) His synergy with Berg is apparent, too, as is the director’s chemistry with his frequent cinematographer Tobias Schliessler, who offers more than a few fantastic shots of Boston throughout. The scene-stealer here, though, is Shlesigner, who absolutely walks away with the movie and never looks back. Her brash, in-your-face performance as a sassy Southie is easily the best thing Spenser has going for it.
The Netflix brass is fervently hoping this is just the first entry in what will become a long and lucrative franchise—the film ends with a new case already locked and loaded, and with almost fifty Spenser books, there’s obviously plenty of material. It may take some Wahlberg-level heavy lifting to ultimately make it worthwhile, but if star, director, and (especially) Shlesinger hop back on board, they’d have a decent shot.