What would a Boston movie generated by a computer algorithm look like? A crime movie, to be sure, with a plot vaguely tied to Southie. Mark Wahlberg is definitely in it. Add in a few nods to the Red Sox and a cast whose accents range from passable to terrible, and you’ve got yourself a feature film.
That appears to be the thinking behind “Spenser Confidential,” Wahlberg’s new film out on Netflix today. Based on the late author Robert B. Parker’s series of detective novels — which also provided the source material for the 1980s show “Spenser: For Hire,” and several TV movies — “Spenser Confidential” is a bland, predictable procedural that’s destined to be quickly forgotten and lost in the cavernous depths of the Netflix streaming library.
“Spenser Confidential” begins with ex-Boston cop Spenser (Wahlberg) completing a five-year prison stint in Walpole for beating up a corrupt police captain. Once he gets out, he plans to briefly stay with his old friend Henry (Alan Arkin, “Argo”) before leaving Boston for good. That’s the plan, anyway — before the corrupt captain and one of Spenser’s detective friends from the academy turn up dead. With the help of Henry and his roommate, aspiring MMA fighter Hawk (Winston Duke, “Black Panther”), Spenser digs deeper into a sprawling criminal underworld.
The role of Spenser, a blue-collar guy with a heart of gold who is outraged by injustice, is in the dead center of Wahlberg’s comfort zone. The actor gives a perfectly capable performance, albeit one that anyone who has seen a Wahlberg movie in the past decade will be familiar with. Berg, who has now directed Wahlberg five times in movies like “Patriots Day” and “Lone Survivor,” knows how to choreograph basic action scenes, which make for an enjoyable, if perfunctory, spectacle.
Locals may also enjoy spotting their neighborhood haunts on screen, with Boston, Malden, Raynham, Revere, and Weston all making appearances. (Others may be turned off by the incessant tracking shots of the Boston skyline that seem to reappear every five minutes.)
To call the film’s plot “paint by numbers” does a disservice to children’s art kits. Wahlberg essentially wanders around for 110 minutes getting the crap beaten out of him, adding each subsequent ass-kicker to his list of people who are “in on it.” What exactly they’re in on is unclear, despite the expository dialogue provided by an ex-Boston Globe journalist (played by Marc Maron) that implicates dirty cops, corrupt politicians, greedy real estate developers, white supremacists, Dominican gangs, and a partridge in a pear tree.
As Hawk, Duke is given little to work with, initially functioning as a mash-up of characteristics — an MMA fighter who can’t punch and loves new-age superfoods — designed to irk Spenser’s old-school sensibilities before quickly becoming a valuable ally. As Spenser’s onetime gal pal Cissy, Iliza Shlesinger’s role is similarly underwritten. While the comedian lands a few good one-liners, she’s mostly stuck playing a Southie ex-girlfriend trope, even yelling “Go Sox!” during the climax of a cringeworthy sex scene.
Maybe only locals will notice, but many of the film’s Boston-specific touches feel like they were focus-grouped in a boardroom. In one scene, Spenser walks into an Irish bar packed with cops watching a Sox game on TV where fans are singing “Sweet Caroline.” Add in the film’s soundtrack, which features Aerosmith’s “Sweet Emotion” and Boston’s “Foreplay/Long Time,” and you’ve completely filled out your Boston Movie Bingo card.
Near the end of the film, Spenser describes yet another bad guy connected to the big case as an “Irish mob throwback” from “back when the Irish mob existed outside all those s***** movies.” Unfortunately for Wahlberg, Berg, and everyone else involved, the majority of those “s***** movies” are a cut above “Spenser Confidential.”
Should you watch “Spenser Confidential”?:
Only if you’re a Boston movie completionist. Otherwise, just rewatch “The Town” and save yourself two hours.