As I’m sure anyone reading this right now is aware, things aren’t great in the world. A global pandemic has basically shut down society to a degree that we’ve never experienced before, and it’s causing some pretty dramatic changes to people’s lives. And, while this is obviously a trivial aspect compared to the larger picture, one of these changes has been to the world of movies. Movies theaters are closed all around the country due to limits on gatherings, and even if they were open a majority of the major releases scheduled over the next few months have been temporarily pulled back. Some studios are flirting with the idea of VOD releases, something that really worries me for the future of the cinematic experience, but by and large we’re going to be in a pretty empty spring when it comes to new movies. And, as someone who finds the watching and discussion of movies to be a stress-relieving and therapeutic action, it’s going to mean I’m going to have to be taking some chances of things I’d probably have passed by in a normal time. Which brings us to Spenser Confidential, a recent Netflix original film that attempts to take a stab at bringing the characters created by Richard B Parker to life for a new generation. Spenser is a character that I’ve been familiar with, largely due to my love of detective novels, but I’ve never actually read any book he’s been in. I’m also aware that there was a fairly long-running television series based on Spenser and his partner Hawk’s exploits from the eighties that generally seems like an inoffensive sub-Rockford Files detective show. But, once again, I’ve never really experienced it. So, I was going in pretty blind to this attempt to revitalize the characters, not really having any idea what to expect. And, it was fine!
The film follows a man named Spenser, who used to be a detective in the Boston Police Department, until an altercation with a superior officer sent him to prison for assault. Spenser has survived his time in prison, and ends up getting released to try and pick up the pieces of his broken life, hiding from his girlfriend Cissy and moving in with his mentor, a boxing instructor named Henry, who is forcing Spenser to live with a promising young boxer named Hawk. It seems like everything is going to work okay for Spenser, as he works to get a trucker’s license and leave Boston behind forever, until something shocking happens. The superior officer who he got in a fight with was brutally murdered on the night that Spenser was released, and a young and idealistic detective that Spencer knew has been identified as the killer. Spenser’s old partner Driscoll initially seemed to think Spenser may have been the culprit, but after the young officer is found dead, seemingly from suicide, he’s picked as the murderer and the case is closed. But, Spenser can’t stop thinking about it, and begins investigating the crime on his own, slowly realizing that there’s something else going on, and that the Boston Police Department seems to be covering up the murder and the suicide.
Spenser begins heading around the city, with the help of Hawk, and they slowly start to piece together what’s happening. Because as they begin moving through the standard and confusing motions of a detective story they start to learn about the existence of a massive casino being built in town that’s in the hands of a drug cartel, and the various rival gangs that are all working together to turn Boston into a landmark of vice that they can control. And, it seems like the Captain who was murdered was involved, and was killed by the members of the conspiracy for working with the FBI, which the young detective who was framed was aware of. And it eventually becomes clear that a chunk of the police force is in on the conspiracy, all seemingly being led by Spenser’s former partner Driscoll. Spenser and Hawk then plan a daring raid to stop Driscoll and save Henry, who Driscoll kidnapped when he realized Spenser was onto him. They manage to shut down the conspiracy, get everyone involved arrested, and clear the name of the framed detective. At which point Spenser realizes that he quite liked solving this crime with Hawk, and ends up deciding that he’s going to stick around in Boston and continue righting wrongs.
Spenser Confidential is not particularly great, but I also didn’t find it to be terrible either. It was fine. The sort of movie that would have played on TNT in the middle of the afternoon back in the day. Something entertaining enough to keep with, but nothing that’s going to elicit any real passion. I’m generally not the biggest fan of Mark Wahlberg, especially now that he’s fallen into this string of collaborations with director Paul Berg that tend to be increasingly similar jingoistic military or police stories. Which makes this film all that much stranger. I can’t imagine the world was clamoring for a new take on the Spenser character, so I’m not really sure why Berg an Wahlberg decided that their next film together needed to be a story about a somewhat cocky Boston private eye. It feels a rather out of character, for both of them, and I have to assume that one of them was a big fan of the television series or the books, and this was something of a passion project. But, there just isn’t that much passion in the film. Every now and then a joke lands, or there’ll be an entertaining little piece of banter, but by and large it feels like most everyone is sleep=walking through the film, no one overly interested in making the movie. Which makes it even stranger that this is a Netflix original film. I’ve tackled quite a few of those sorts of movies, especially now that Netflix seems to be in the business to giving directors veritable blank checks to make whatever they want with no studio interference. And, usually that has resulted in a movie that’s bad, but because it’s not reined in enough, and is almost a little too passionate. But, that’s not the case here. And I ended up finishing this movie with the feeling like this was some sort of pilot for a new Spenser TV show that neither Berg nor Wahlberg would probably have anything to do with.
And that ends up encapsulating my entire opinion on this movie. They don’t really exist anymore, but back in the day it wasn’t uncommon for a potential new television series to have a pilot episode essentially be film-length. Often if those pilots failed they would get packaged as films and released in foreign markets to try and recoup some losses, and they make for very entertaining little glimpses into could-have-been shows. And, even some that did end up making it to the small screen still had pilots that followed the same path. They would often be fairly different from the show that ended up getting made, often with recasting or other major elements changed, really serving more as proofs of concept than anything else. And that’s kind of the vibe I get from this movie. It’s not really flashy, doesn’t have any of Berg’s normal quirks, and really features a blank performance from Wahlberg that doesn’t even feel like his typical persona. It just feels like something that would get tinkered with and sent out in a different form down the line as a TV show. It’s a 70’s back-door pilot that somehow got released in 2020 as a movie. And, I’m kind of into that aesthetic. It’s not a good movie, I’ll never think about it again, and I’m sure that nothing will ever become of it. But, it was an entertaining enough little diversion as the world crumbles down around me, and it scratched a weirdly nostalgic itch that I didn’t even realize that I had. But, seriously Netflix, it’s time to make a legit private eye television show that’s actually worth watching.
Spenser Confidential was written by Sean O’Keefe and Brian Helgeland, directed by Peter Berg, and released by Netflix, 2020.
Categories: Reel Talk