Film Review: Spenser Confidential (dir by Peter Berg)


Spenser Confidential, which is currently streaming on Netflix, is the latest Mark Wahlberg/Peter Berg collaboration.

It’s a crime film and it’s set in Boston and it will probably remind you every other Boston-set crime film that you’ve ever seen.  It’s got all the usual ingredients.  People sing Sweet Caroline.  A fat gangster wears a tracksuit.  We get a long overhead shot of the streets of Southie and there’s a scene set in an Irish bar.  One of the film’s big scenes takes place at what appears to be a deserted racing track.  (I’ve never been to Boston but, just from the movies, I know that the city is basically made up of Harvard, Southie, and hundreds of deserted race tracks.)  The Red Sox get a shout-out.  And, of course, the movie stars Mr. Boston himself, Mark Wahlberg.  Seriously, if your Boston movie doesn’t feature Mark Wahlberg or an Affleck brother, it might as well just be a St. Louis movie.

In this one, Mark Wahlberg plays Spenser.  Spenser was a cop until a gangster in a tracksuit murdered someone from the neighborhood and the head of homicide tried to bury the case.  This led to an angry Spenser beating the man up in front of his own house.  Spenser was sent to prison, where he served five years as an ex-cop in the general population.  That’s right!  He wasn’t even put in protective custody but somehow, he survived.  Right before Spenser is released from prison, he’s attacked by a Neo-Nazi who is played by Post Malone.  It’s not really that relevant to the overall plot but it does give viewers a chance to say, “Wait a minute …. is that Post Malone?”

Anyway, once he gets out of prison, Spenser moves in with his mentor and former boxing coach, Henry Cimoli (Alan Arkin).  He also gets a new roommate, an aspiring MMA fighter named Hawk (Winston Duke).  After Captain Boylan,  the head of homicide — yes, the same guy that Spenser beat up five years ago, is decapitated by 20 sword-carrying assailants, Spenser is the number one suspect.  Fortunately, for Spenser, another cop commits suicide and it’s quickly announced that the cop who killed himself also killed Boylan.  It’s a murder/suicide!  So, Spenser’s off the hook and I guess the movie’s over, right?

Nope, it doesn’t work like that.  It turns out that Spenser has his doubts about the whole story and he wants to investigate because he has “a strong moral code.”  Unfortunately, as a convicted felon, Spenser is not allowed to become a private investigator.  So, Spenser and Hawk conduct an unofficial investigation, which largely amounts to talking to Spenser’s former partner, Driscoll (Bokeem Woodbine) and getting into a brawl while Sweet Caroline plays in the background.

It’s a Boston thing.

The mystery are the heart of the film pretty much leads exactly where you think it’s going to lead.  For a 2-hour crime thriller, there aren’t exactly a lot of twists and turns to be found in Spenser Confidential, which is a problem.  The mystery’s solution is so obvious that it’s hard not to resent the fact that Spenser is apparently too stupid to figure it out on his own.  There’s an extended scene where he gets attacked by a dog and you know what?  That would have never happened to any other movie detective because every other detective would have figured out who the murderer was long before getting attacked by that dog.

On the plus side, Peter Berg knows how to stage a fight scene and he also knows how to make the best use of Wahlberg’s mix of sensitivity and working class arrogance.  Unfortunately, the rest of the cast is let down by a script that doesn’t give them much to do.  Winston Duke is physically imposing as Hawk but he spends too much of the film standing around and waiting for Spenser to take the lead.  Alan Arkin appears to be having fun in the role of Henry but again, his character is underwritten.  About the only person, other than Wahlberg, who gets to make much of an impression is Iliza Shlesinger, who is cast as Spenser’s ex-girlfriend.  Shlesinger may be playing a stereotype (she’s loud, crude, and has a thick Boston accent) but she fully embraces the character and makes her seem like the only person in the film who actually has a life beyond what’s happening onscreen at any given moment.

Anyway, Spenser Confidential isn’t terrible as much as it’s just forgettable.  It’s a generic Boston crime film and you can probably safely watch it if you’re not looking for something to which you would actually have to pay attention.  Some of the action scenes are well-shot.  If you liked Mark Wahlberg in other films, you’ll probably like him in this.  Whether you enjoy it or not, you’ll probably forget about this film about an hour after watching it.