FILM REVIEW – SPENSER CONFIDENTIAL. With Mark Wahlberg, Winston Duke, Alan Arkin, Iliza Shlesinger, Bokeem Woodbine. Written by Sean O’Keefe and Brian Helgeland. Directed by Peter Berg. Rated R for violence, language throughout and sexual content. 111 minutes.
Leaving fingerprints smeared with Wahlburgers’ grease all over a beloved Boston institution, SPENSER CONFIDENTIAL takes Robert B. Parker’s sly, sophisticated private eye and dumbs him down into another one of its star’s patented, know-it-all knuckleheads. Immortalized in 40 Parker novels, three seasons of ABC’s “Spenser: For Hire,” a bevy of TV-movies and spinoffs along with a sorely missed bookshop on Newbury Street, the dashing detective was the most erudite self-described “thug” in crime fiction. A former boxer and ex-cop, the mononymous Spenser was also a gourmet cook with a penchant for quoting poets when he wasn’t busting bad guys’ heads. Now, though, he’s just an asshole.
The new film, so I’m told, is very loosely adapted from one of eight Spenser novels penned by author Ace Atkins since Parker’s death in 2010. (I confess I haven’t read any of them, but then I never read Parker’s Phillip Marlowe books either, as I don’t like estate-sanctioned literary fanfic.) It’s an origin story of sorts with Wahlberg playing a hot-headed uniformed cop we first meet beating the crap out of his crooked captain. “The son of a bitch deserved it,” he explains to the judge. Released after five years in Walpole, our hero wants nothing more than to graduate from tractor-trailer driving school and relocate to Arizona, but unfinished business in the old neighborhood keeps conspiring to get in his way. Especially when that old commanding officer of his is found massacred in a school bus parking lot.
“Spenser Confidential” basically just borrows a few names of characters from the Parker novels, with Alan Arkin phoning it in as cantankerous boxing coach Henry Cimoli and Winston Duke reimagining Spenser’s suave sidekick Hawk as a dim-bulb MMA fighter who doesn’t know how to throw a punch. (Of course, Wahlberg teaches him how to fight. As per what must be a clause in the star’s contract by now, he spends a good deal of the movie walking around correcting people, occasionally interrupted by underprivileged folks from the neighborhood stopping to tell him what a great guy he is.) During an early scene, Spenser is glimpsed wearing glasses while reading a book and I was terrified for a moment that we were about to hear Mark Wahlberg recite poetry, but luckily that personality quirk was abandoned along with the detective’s affinity for fine dining.
The central whodunit is hardly a headscratcher, with a criminal mastermind so inept he leaves a chewed toothpick at the murder scene. There isn’t a great deal of gumshoe work in the scenario, just lots of shots in which the camera circles worshipfully at a low angle under Wahlberg as he gazes up into the sun, nodding like he’s just figured something out. (I guess they thought this was more cinematic than simply having him say “A-ha!”) The rest of the time he’s getting the crap kicked out of him by four or five guys at once. I suppose having the star lose so many fights is intended to make him seem more down-to-earth, but considering the outrageous odds stacked against him, Spenser always holding his own for tediously long periods of time somehow feels even more egomaniacal.
It’s a surprise Wahlberg and director Peter Berg were allowed back in town after their loathsome 2016 “Patriots Day,” a crassly exploitative wish-fulfillment fantasy in which the star singlehandedly solved the Boston marathon bombing and received effusive thanks from a grateful Commonwealth. “Spenser Confidential” isn’t nearly as offensive (how could it be?) but rather merely content to traffic in exhausted Southie stereotypes and the usual donkey Irish burlesques, most characters carrying on like that Casey Affleck Dunkin’ Donuts commercial from “Saturday Night Live.” The low point is probably a brawl at a replica of the long-closed West Broadway bar Slainte during a Sox game while everybody’s singing “Sweet Caroline.” This is the kind of quote-unquote Boston movie you’d expect from a couple of Lakers fans.
Berg’s direction is uncharacteristically enervated, with a good-enough-for-government-work vibe to the slapdash staging. (Like a lot of Netflix movies, this one is also egregiously overlit. It looks like a pilot for a TNT show.) Any mystery reader will be at least a half-hour ahead of our characters, and the broad, cartoonish attempts at comedy don’t mesh with the mawkishly sentimental salutes to our hero’s fundamental decency. Berg lazily tosses in so many hacky music cues from local bands like Boston and Aerosmith, I can only assume that the Dropkick Murphys have become prohibitively expensive.
Re-watching a few early episodes of “Spenser: For Hire” this week I was taken all over again not just with the air of worldly melancholy Robert Urich brought to the detective or the smooth, Clarence Clemons-esque charms of Avery Brooks’ Hawk, but also with a vision of our fair city that’s constricted considerably as its big-screen profile has expanded. The extensive and impressive location shooting on the ABC program showcased a Boston of universities, fancy restaurants and upscale cultural institutions existing alongside the inevitable underworld shenanigans. The elegance was aspirational, as was the characters’ educated banter, unlike the loutish shouting of fuckwords and meathead, street-smaht posturing that dominate “Spenser Confidential.”
For the love of God, don’t let these people anywhere near “Cheers.”•••
Over the past twenty years, Sean Burns’ reviews, interviews, and essays have appeared in WBUR’s The ARTery, Philadelphia Weekly, The Improper Bostonian, Metro, The Village Voice, Nashville Scene and RogerEbert.com. He stashes them all at Spliced Personality.