Entertainment

What critics are saying about ‘Spenser Confidential,’ the new Mark Wahlberg movie on Netflix

The reviews (both good and bad) of the Dorchester native's Boston-set movie.

Mark Wahlberg and Winston Duke in "Spenser Confidential." Daniel McFadden/Netflix

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Netflix can’t get enough of Massachusetts.

The streaming giant has taken advantage of the state’s film tax credit program quite a bit recently: In 2019, the company filmed the upcoming Adam Sandler Halloween comedy “Hubie Halloween,” the family-friendly spy comedy “The Sleepover,” and the Mark Wahlberg procedural “Spenser Confidential,” which is on Netflix.

In the film, the Dorchester native plays Spenser, the wisecracking Boston detective made famous in author Robert B. Parker’s series of novels, the 1980s ABC show “Spenser: For Hire,” and several TV movies. After a prison stint for beating up a corrupt police captain, Spenser plans to leave Boston for good, but an unexpected death pulls him into a deepening mystery.

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Early critical response to the film has been mixed, with review aggregation website Rotten Tomatoes awarding “Spenser Confidential” a 45 percent freshness rating at the time of this article’s publication.

Boston.com’s review of “Spenser Confidential,” called the film an “unnecessary addition to the Boston crime movie canon.” But in order to allow readers to sample a range of critical responses and make a decision on their own, we’ve also rounded up what critics are saying — good, bad, and everything in between — about “Spenser Confidential.”

The Good

Richard Roeper of the Chicago Sun-Times gave the film three-and-a-half stars, calling the film a markedly funny departure from Berg and Wahlberg’s typical fare and a “B-movie for the streaming generation.”

“Spenser Confidential,” in contrast, is a violent, rough-and-tumble, expletive-laden tale featuring a gang of villains who favor machetes instead of guns for absolutely no discernible reason — but it’s also as much a dark comedy as it is an action film. It’s a fantastically over-the-top, drive-in B-movie for the streaming generation.

 

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Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times praised Wahlberg’s performance, and said that a prospective sequel “wouldn’t be a half-bad idea.”

Starring Mark Wahlberg and directed by Peter Berg, it’s an entertaining example of private eye genre material — energetic, violent and fun — with those key players a big part of the reason why. Such a native of the city that the Dorchester street he lived on during his teenage years makes an appearance in the film, Wahlberg is the definition of Boston charisma. More than that, the actor is at ease with an ex-cop turned investigator role that demands the ability to be a convincingly tough action hero as well as knowing your way around a funny line.

 

Variety’s Peter DeBurge found Berg and Wahlberg’s departure from true-story dramas into lighter fare was a winning recipe, and even called “Spenser” more entertaining than Netflix’s other notable recent crime movie, “The Irishman.”

In those films — which include a trio of panic-attack true-story thrillers, “Lone Survivor,” “Deepwater Horizon” and “Patriots Day” — Wahlberg and Berg seemed to be reaching for some kind of awards-season legitimacy. Here, on the other hand, they’re just cutting loose, channeling the never-surrender, wisecracking spirit of vintage ’80s movies like “Die Hard” and “Lethal Weapon” where the hero takes a whippin’ and keeps on quippin’.

 

The So-So

Entertainment Weekly’s Leah Greenblatt gave the film a C+, and wrote that “Spenser Confidential” was a step down in the Berg-Wahlberg collaborative efforts.

Spenser Confidential marks the fifth pairing of the actor and the director in less than a decade, after all, and their second set in Wahlberg’s hometown; wouldn’t they only be getting better at this by now? Instead, the duo’s first collaboration for Netflix feels less like a thriller fitted for the small screen than a sort of supersized block of crime-time television: an episodic John Wick for all the classic-rock dads patiently waiting for their own small corner of the streaming universe to be served.


Elisabeth Vincentelli of The New York Times called the movie both “disposable” and “easily watchable,” and praised Wahlberg’s chemistry with his supporting cast. 

The perfunctory plot matters less than the scenes depicting Spenser’s relationships with his old buddy Henry (Alan Arkin); his new buddy Hawk (Winston Duke); his former girlfriend Cissy (the comedian Iliza Shlesinger); and his dog, Pearl. Those moments are Berg and Wahlberg at their loosely funny best, clearly enjoying making room for the supporting cast to strut their stuff — Duke is especially winning as a laconic gentle giant working on his MMA moves. The prospect of spending more time with this crew is not a bad one.

 

The Ugly

Boston.com’s review of the film criticized its blandly predictable plot, and said that even the Boston-specific details 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.

 

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Matthew Gilbert of The Boston Globe kicked off his review with a run-on rant about the movie’s terrible accents, Wahlberg’s typecast performance, and how little the movie resembles Parker’s literary creation.

There are bad cops, and there are bad movies, and there are bad Boston accents, and there are bad movies about bad cops featuring bad Boston accents, namely “Spenser Confidential,” a bad movie about bad cops featuring bad Boston accents that also adopts the brand name of Robert B. Parker’s famous first-nameless private eye in order to attract that franchise’s built-in audience — even though the movie’s Spenser, played by Mark Wahlberg leaning fully into his Boston working-class type, is more of a Wahlbergian light-action hero with Popeye gym muscles than anything resembling Parker’s original creation.

 

In the AP’s one-star review of the film, Mark Kennedy criticized Wahlberg for “sleepwalking” through the movie, and wrote that tonally the movie was all over the place.

In between the fights, “Spenser Confidential” reaches for film noir, like a “Chinatown” in Beantown (one character even has a toothpick sticking out of his mouth at all times). Sometimes it tries be a “Dirty Harry” movie or to ape the dark feel of “Gone Baby Gone.” Other times it tries to be a buddy comedy but with few actual laughs, unless you consider the line “Did you just kick me, bro?” funny.

What’s your favorite Mark Wahlberg movie?

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