Directed by Peter Berg
So, yeah. What a change a couple of weeks can make. 2 weeks ago I was counting down the days until the new Bond film and A Quiet Place 2. Now, we find ourselves self-quarantining, self-distancing, self-isolating, and washing our hands more often than Howard Hughes. Some of us are panicking and some of us are cautious and some of us are buying enough toilet paper to build tree forts. Monkeys are rioting in Thailand, Nara deer are leaving their park, and Sarah Palin was eliminated on The Masked Singer. Who knew the apocalypse would be so surreal? But, hey, introverts and pets are happy, and there is always something streaming that might be worth checking out.
Which brings us to Spenser Confidential, a Netflix original starring Mark Wahlberg, Winston Duke, Alan Arkin, and Iliza Shlesinger. It's loosely based on Robert B. Parker's Spenser series of novels. Which also inspired the Spenser For Hire TV series starring Robert Urich and Avery Brooks, which gave life to A Man Called Hawk. And there was also Spenser: For Hire, an A&E film series that starred Joe Mantegna and Marcia Gay Harden sometime around the birth of this millennium. And that's enough of the Wikipedia deep dive. We should talk about the movie now. It's why we're here, avoiding spreadsheets and life and family and friends, after all.
Is Spenser Confidential good? Glad you asked. Are you asking is Spenser Confidential a piece of art, a film that ponders life's great mysteries, ponders the existential angst that is existence, a film that examines humanity in all of its perplexities? No. I mean, come on. It's a Mark Wahlberg/Peter Berg film. That would be a right weird question. Or are you asking is Spenser Confidential a kind of dumb but highly entertaining way to spend a couple of hours as the world spins off its axis, is it some good escapism, and does Mark Wahlberg take his shirt off? Yes, yes, and yes.
Spenser Confidential can be kind of dumb at times, but it is also highly entertaining, and never, ever lets up for its entire 2-hour plus running time. It's funny and full of good action and good fights and Mark Wahlberg takes his shirt off. What more could you ask for when you're trying to block out the growing darkness and madness that is our lives in this young decade?
Seriously though, Spenser Confidential never lets its foot off of the gas pedal. It is all the way to the floor from the opening scene to the end. The pacing in this movie has to be admired. It's not like a Michael Bay movie, where the edits come so fast that you're not sure if maybe you just watched a trailer for the last 2 hours. Even though the movie moves along like a 1968 Impala cruising at top speed on the Mass Pike, Peter Berg and his team take care to ensure that the story and characters are up front, never lost in the wash of lights that pummel the lizard part of our brain. It's not that the story is going to compete with The Big Lebowski or Kiss Kiss Bang Bang or any other great mystery movie. But it's fun and the stakes feel real and organic and there's rarely a "well, that makes no damn sense" moment.
What is the movie about? Well, let me tell you. Mark Wahlberg plays Spenser, a former cop whom we meet just before he is released from prison after serving a 5 year stint. And it is really hard not to write like an overwrought detective novel after watching this movie. Anyway. Spenser did some stuff, got sent up for 5 years, loses a fight, gets out of prison, takes off his shirt, loses another fight, some other stuff happens, Spenser loses another fight. It's one of the best recurring jokes in the movie, the amount of beatings Mark Wahlberg takes. The look of exasperation on his face as he realizes he's about to get his ass kicked again is among the funniest stuff in a movie filled with some really funny stuff. But the movie isn't all laughs, there's some darkness. And it gets truly dark at times.
The performances in Spenser Confidential are all pretty good. Alan Arkin is a triumph. Iliza Shlesinger is hilarious as Spenser's volatile ex. When I saw that the movie is set in Boston I suddenly had a knot of dread in my stomach. How bad would Ms Shlesinger's accent work be? Will she be all "Hawvawd. Wicked. Sommawville down by the Mystic"? I mean, I love her comedy. And she was awesome and funny in Instant Family as the tightly wound Sandra Bullock wanna-be. I shouldn't have worried, not a bit. Her Cissy Davis is laugh-out-loud-scare-the-dog funny. She's 8 feet of dynamite in a 5 foot 5 inch frame.
Mark Wahlberg has made his limitations a strength. As he approaches 50 he has made stoicism and vulnerability and loyalty his playground. He's obviously a smart man, having taken a novelty hit and transformed that into a modelling career, acting, producing, and entrepreneurship. He just has a hard time playing smart men and it's best when his characters have people in their lives that are smarter than whomever he is playing. In this film, it's Winston Duke. The man is becoming a damned treasure. He is quickly becoming one of the great character actors. M'Baku in Black Panther, Gabe in Us, Hawk in Spenser Confidential. All complete and unique and fully dimensional characters. And so very, very funny.
What it all boils down to after way too many words is this - Spenser Confidential is worth your time if you're looking for a fun distraction as the apocalypse ticks along and our lives become a goulash of truth, rumour, and paranoia. If you're looking for something to make sense of all this, well, maybe you should watch Spenser Confidential and just relax for a couple of hours.
Either way, don't forget to wash your hands.