In an early scene in the new Netflix film, “Spenser Confidential,” Spenser (Mark Wahlberg) talks to his dog for an extended period of time. While not indicative of the movie as a whole, this exchange sheds light on who Wahlberg is as a public figure. On one hand, the scene is an attempt at heartwarming earnestness as Spenser finally gets to interact with a long lost pet. On the other hand, the moment feels like a knowing reference to his muscle-bound idiot charm that Andy Samberg impersonated on Saturday Night Live.
With Wahlberg, moments like these are difficult to parse. His decade-spanning career includes an assortment of masterpieces and disasters, giving the impression of a celebrity with an unexamined taste and leaving an audience to wonder if he really is in on the joke. If he is, then “Spenser Confidential” is even more difficult to comprehend.
From director Peter Berg, “Spenser Confidential” tells the story of Spenser, an ex-cop who stumbles onto a sprawling conspiracy within the Boston police department. With the help of his new friend Hawk (Winston Duke) and mentor Henry (Alan Arkin), Spenser goes on a mission to uncover criminals and serve justice.
As a run-of-the-mill action procedural, “Spenser Confidential” suffers but doesn’t exactly fail. Berg and Wahlberg’s extensive experience manages to lend the movie a feeling of professionalism, grounding the viewer’s expectations. The film may not be good, but it’s exactly what an audience bargains for when they think of a Berg-Wahlberg action comedy.
Wahlberg’s performance is somewhat notable given his sheer amount of screen time. In almost every single scene, Spenser finds himself imperiled, so Wahlberg gets a chance to show off his physicality as both predator and prey. The issue with the performance, however, is his utter lack of chemistry with virtually every other character. In scenes with his ex-girlfriend Cissy (Iliza Shlesinger) in particular, Wahlberg can’t convincingly portray any kind of emotional attachment or genuine connection.
Part of this problem is the complete failure of the movie’s dialogue. Cissy is a rather obvious stereotype — a foulmouthed Boston caricature whose only purpose is to engage Spenser in shouting matches. Perhaps the only well-written character in the film is Hawk, an up-and-coming MMA fighter and Spenser’s roommate.
Hawk may not be too emotionally complex, but the script gives Duke enough of an opportunity to liven up the character. After roles in “Us” and “Black Panther,” Duke has proven himself as a rising star. Berg appears to have recognized Duke’s talents and gives him a greater opportunity.
“Spenser Confidential,” however, was likely doomed from the project’s inception. As an adaptation of the novel “Wonderland” by Ace Atkins, the greatest heights the film could aspire to would still likely be the depths of crime fiction. For every paperback crime adaptation success like “Out of Sight” or “Jackie Brown,” there are dozens of failures like “Be Cool” or “The Snowman.”
Berg’s decision to take on the project feels like an interesting career adjustment, especially given the fact that “Spenser Confidential” is a Netflix film. Berg reinvented his career in the 2010s by positioning himself as a filmmaker exploring masculine-American tragedy in films like “Deepwater Horizon,” “Lone Survivor” and “Patriot’s Day.” Now, with “Spenser Confidential” and 2018’s “Mile 22,” Berg and Wahlberg may find themselves backed into a corner, making low-quality action films without purpose.
At times, Berg’s biggest flaws are on full display, complete with clunky dialogue, disorienting action sequences and failed comedy. Perhaps the most annoying trait of “Spenser Confidential” is Berg’s insistence on blaring remixes of classic rock songs for almost every single second of the runtime.
Despite all its flaws and shortcomings, “Spenser Confidential” still may find a mass following. With world box office results expected to plummet due to coronavirus fears, Netflix films may be taking on an even larger cultural role. By being on Netflix, “Spenser Confidential” has practically no barriers to entry and does serve as dumb mass entertainment.
Ultimately, Wahlberg is still one of the biggest acting stars in the world, and his presence in a middling action movie has the potential to attract audiences. The question is, if Wahlberg and Berg keep making below average trash, will viewers keep watching them?
Contact Chris Carr at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more on the culture, arts and lifestyle of the JMU and Harrisonburg communities, follow the culture desk on Twitter @Breeze_Culture.