Peter Berg is a solid, occasionally inspired filmmaker, but I wouldn’t necessarily consider him an “auteur” by any stretch of the imagination. However, he’s recently created a defining directorial stamp by making a very specific type of movie: gritty, realistic tales of ripped-from-the-headlines heroism and valor, almost always starring Mark Wahlberg. Berg has made this his defining sub-genre of work so intensely that early blockbusters like Battleship and Hancock seem like an aberration—it’s almost hard to imagine a time before Berg teamed up with his favorite action star to provide an arguably jingoistic portrayal of everyday heroes.
Lone Survivor, Deepwater Horizon, and Patriots Day all range from pleasantly skillful to sub-par, but if you watched all three movies in quick succession, you wouldn’t be surprised to learn that they were all the product of a single filmmaker. Even Mile 22, Berg‘s disastrous attempt to fuse Indonesian action aesthetics with his own patriotic love of professional heroes, features the stamp of a director with a guiding set of ideas and composition choices.
So where does Spenser Confidential, Berg‘s fifth team-up with Wahlberg, fit into this equation? Here’s the short answer: it really doesn’t. Beyond the fact that it’s set in Boston and features a law enforcement officer as a protagonist, this basic buddy comedy feels generic, tonally confused, and most importantly, the product of a workmanlike filmmaker clearly out of his element.
The Case of the Dead Police Captain
Wahlberg stars as Spenser—a man who apparently does not have a first name, seeing as characters refer to him as both “Spenser” and “Detective Spencer” throughout the film. On a snowy winter morning in Boston in 2014, Spenser arrives at the house of Captain Boylan (Michael Gaston), his powerful (and possibly corrupt) boss. Angered by a previous incident—and the horrific sight of the drunken captain’s bloodied wife—Spenser attacks Boylan in a brutal fit of rage. Spenser’s partner, Driscoll (Bokeem Woodbine), tries to pull him away, but the damage is done. Spenser is sentenced to five years in prison, even if he asserts that his boss truly deserves it.
Jump ahead five years to 2019. Spenser is finally being released from prison, and despite a late-in-the-game assassination attempt from prominent gangland inmate Squeeb (Post Malone, aka, Austin Post), the disgraced cop escapes with time to spare. He returns to the care of Henry (Alan Arkin), a mentor and father figure who also owns a major Boston boxing gym. Spenser’s excited to see his dog and desperate to avoid his ex-girlfriend (Iliza Shlesinger), but his life isn’t quite going to be the same. In particular, he now has a roommate: Hawk (Winston Duke), a fellow ex-con looking to make his name as a professional boxer.
Spenser jumps back into action when Boston is rocked by tragedy: the sudden and vicious murder of Captain Boylan and the subsequent “suicide” of Officer Terrence Graham (Brandon Scales). Though Spenser is no longer a cop (nor can he be because of his record), he still smells something fishy here. Graham is being accused of Boylan’s murder—only there’s no real evidence to suggest that this is the case. Desperate to prove the name of an innocent cop, Spenser embarks on a quest that takes him to the underworld of Boston and the intersection of drug cartels, gangs, and major power players. With some help from Hawk and Henry, he may just solve the case.
Familiar & Dull Buddy Comedy/Cheapo Noir
When/if you watch Spenser Confidential on Netflix, the company lists several genre descriptors (as they do for all films), including the curious choice of “Film Noir.” Superficially, Berg‘s film has all the familiar trappings—a hard-boiled detective in Wahlberg‘s Spenser, a case involving wide-ranging corruption, a high-stakes narrative web that puts a lot of innocent victims in danger, and even an old-fashioned love of the grungy, tough-guy sport of boxing. Berg and cinematographer Tobias A. Schliesser even use this bland, black-and-white color palette for flashback sequences, which is a clever nod to noir’s past that also has the amusing effect of reminding us that this is something of a pale imitation.
Indeed, what’s strangest about Spenser Confidential is the tonally incongruous nature of the whole bloody affair. The film is too earnest to be a parody of noir tropes, but it also injects this generic template with some of the dumbest narrative elements imaginable. Wahlberg is alternately a manic and dead-serious screen presence, and it’s honestly kind of delightful to watch him toggle between those two extremes—even if the film is worse because of it. There’s an extended scene where he gets in a bathroom brawl set to Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline,” followed by a later scene where he’s relentlessly chased by a dog (please, filmmakers, stop using GoPro shots in your silly action movies). There’s also the matter of Cissy Davis, Spenser’s on-and-off flame, who is such an exaggerated Boston stereotype that she turns every scene into an outrageous comic showcase. It’s hard to take the actual plot seriously when it’s interrupted by characters rambunctiously having sex in a bar bathroom.
Of course, there’s obvious precedent for this kind of comic noir: this is the buddy cop comedy’s bread and butter. Shane Black‘s films (The Nice Guys, Lethal Weapon, etc.) are built on an elaborate fusion of the detective movie and mainstream comedy, but they maintain something of a singular tone throughout—or at least manage to switch from comic to dramatic modes with a certain degree of grace. Spenser Confidential plays it fairly straight, only to allow for constant interruptions of startling idiocy to the proceedings. Plus, this is barely a buddy cop movie, just on the basis that it’s pretty much the Mark Wahlberg show from start to finish—Winston Duke is a tremendous actor, but he doesn’t have a whole lot to do.
Passably Dumb—But Not Exactly Fun
With the combination of a straightforward and familiar narrative, a strangely energetic and confusing star turn, and bursts of comedy that seem less purposeful than sloppy, Spenser Confidential actually reminded me of John Travolta‘s infamous disasterpiece Gotti in the early goings—that’s company you don’t want to be in. Despite the pedigree of talent involved, everything about this film is dull and pedestrian. Berg‘s filmmaking is missing any of his trademark flourishes or authorial identity; I would blame this on the Netflix switch, but that hasn’t stopped a number of other directors from doubling down on their own quirks. Cinematographer Schliesser, who has made aesthetically pleasing movies before, also seems to have few ideas on how to make this remotely interesting from a visual perspective.
Most baffling of all is the screenplay. Adapted from the book series by Ace Atkins and Robert B. Parker, the script from Sean O’Keefe and Brian Helgeland—the Oscar-winning screenwriter of L.A. Confidential, the greatest neo-noir ever made—is barely perfunctory. It’s boilerplate noir 101 (corruption + dirty cops = a solid mystery), made distinct by a few dumb, tongue-in-cheek Boston jokes (there’s a title card that just reads “Lobstah” at one point) and its attempt to incorporate a buddy cop dynamic between Wahlberg and Duke.
As hard as I’ve been on the film thus far, it eventually levels out into something passably dumb. A few jokes land, the film gains some momentum, and I stopped actively feeling baffled by what I was watching. While, yes, it’s a desperate move to try to invoke the misfit family cliche that has been used by so many recent franchise titles, it works well enough. Yet even if it becomes competent and sturdy in a cliched sort of way, it’s never exactly entertaining or inspiring. Every element is just so familiar that it eventually becomes watchable, which is somehow neither a compliment nor an insult.
Spenser Confidential: Conclusion
Peter Berg‘s career is the very definition of a mixed bag, and while I have no doubt that he’ll deliver another impressive re-creation of a true story in the coming years (likely with Wahlberg starring), this has to go down as a miss for him. I’m a fan of this kind of noir comedy, but this one is narratively rote and visually ghastly, never sparking to life in any significant fashion.
Let’s face it: if your movie features a massive, impromptu machete brawl and still isn’t that fun or compelling, something went wrong along the way.
What did you think of Spenser Confidential? What’s your favorite Mark Wahlberg/Peter Berg collaboration? Let us know in the comments below!
Spenser Confidential was released on Netflix worldwide on March 6, 2020.
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