"You get beat up a lot."
Truer words were never spoken where former cop and reluctant private investigator Spenser is concerned. He gets beat up in a prison library. He gets beat up in a bathroom. He gets beat up in a Mexican restaurant. You'd think the guy would know when to quit, but no. His sense of tenacity and Boston machismo always keeps him coming back for more. One gets the impression that if he isn't nursing a sore jaw and sporting multiple bruises, he just ain't happy.
While author Robert Parker isn't around to see this latest incarnation of his seminal detective character, I think he'd approve of Peter Berg's Spenser Confidential, a Netflix feature that stars Mark Wahlberg, who obviously hopes it will be a dependable franchise he can fall back on. What with Parker's original 40 novels and eight others by author Ace Atkins, there's certainly no shortage of material. More importantly, the role fits Wahlberg like a glove; his trademark sense of intensity is present but there's a feeling of ease just below the surface the actor is reveling in, a fun tone the viewer can share in that makes this adventure far better than it has a right to be.
A devoted police officer, Spenser has spent five years in prison for assaulting a superior he suspected of being corrupt. He's been productive while inside and has a firm plan to go to Arizona and be a truck driver. However, his past won't let him as the man he beat up is found dead on the night he's released and our hero finds himself in the spotlight once more as the number one suspect. Not content to sit back and let those with badges solve the case, Spenser begins to poke around and discovers a vast conspiracy that involves dirty cops, the Irish mob, a machete-wielding street gang, an abandoned racetrack and a plan to build a state-run casino.
Plot-wise, there are quite a few moving parts – two too many, if truth be told – but in the end, they really don't matter. This is pretty rote stuff as urban mysteries go. No, the most engaging aspect of the movie are the characters, a colorful crew brought to life by a veteran cast whose interactions provide the spark that helps raise this above the ordinary. Of course, as Spenser, Wahlberg is front-and-center and obviously having a good time throwing fists, cracking wise and being the steadfast, moral center in this corrupt universe. As Hawk, Winston Duke seems a second or two behind everything that's going on but the actor brings a sense of humor to this hulking role that makes him endearing and a worthy foil for his co-star, who he frustrates again and again. Iliza Shlesinger is Spenser's foul-mouthed girlfriend, Cissy, and she's more than up to the task of going toe-to-toe with Wahlberg. She's as crass, tough and sassy as he is and their chemistry helps us understand why these two volatile personalities can't keep their hands off one another. As Spenser's mentor, Alan Arkin is on hand, and I'm sure I don't have to tell you what he brings to the table.
Say what you will about Berg, but he knows how to propel a story on a straight narrative track that's often engaging from beginning to end. Is this great cinema? Not by a long shot, but it is great fun and sometimes, that's all you need.
Contact Chuck Koplinski at firstname.lastname@example.org.