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More of the same from Mark Wahlberg in ‘Spenser Confidential’

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Robert De Niro and Martin Scorsese. John Wayne and John Ford. Russell Crowe and Ridley Scott. Alfred Hitchcock and Jimmy Stewart. Johnny Depp and Tim Burton. Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg. Kurt Russell and John Carpenter. Jack Lemmon and Billy Wilder.

The history of Hollywood is littered with actor/director pairings that became ongoing, marriages between filmmaker and star that led to long-term cinematic relationships. These pairings often – but definitely not always – lead to exceptional and memorable projects.

While the partnership between Mark Wahlberg and Peter Berg might not have the same legendary heft carried by the names on that previous list, it’s tough to argue that they haven’t been both prolific and successful (commercially, anyway – critically is a different story).

Their latest collaboration is “Spenser Confidential,” a Netflix original film loosely based on the novel “Wonderland” by Ace Atkins and the 1980s TV show “Spencer: For Hire,” both featuring characters created by Robert B. Parker. Wahlberg plays the titular Spenser, an ex-cop and ex-con looking to get his life back together, only to get swept up into a vast conspiracy.

It’s a throwback movie, one reminiscent of the Reagan-era action thrillers from which it draws its inspiration. While the plot is thin and convoluted and most of the characters are more accurately described as caricatures, that nostalgia vibe is enough to make the movie a mildly enjoyable experience – though no one is going to mistake it as “good,” per se.

Wahlberg stars as the titular Spenser, a no-nonsense Boston cop doing time for assault after intervening in a domestic incident involving his boss, Captain John Boylan (Michael Gaston, “Togo”). He gets out after serving his five-year sentence, with only his old pal and mentor Henry (Alan Arkin, “Dumbo”) to support him. His former partner Driscoll (Bokeem Woodbine, “Queen & Slim”) is keeping him at arm’s length and his ex-girlfriend Cissy (Iliza Shlesinger, “Instant Family”) is still mad at him for getting jailed.

All Spenser wants is to be left alone so he can get his long-haul trucking license and get out of Boston. He’s staying with Henry, though he’s not the only one – Henry, a trainer, also has one of his fighters staying with him, a rather large gentleman by the name of Hawk (Winston Duke, “Avengers: Endgame”).

Alas, it isn’t to be. On the very day that Spenser gets out of prison, Boylan is killed. While Spenser is initially a person of interest, the culprit is soon revealed to be a dirty cop who subsequently commits suicide. And that’s that … except it isn’t.

Spenser’s sure that there’s more to the story, and sure enough, when he starts doing some digging, things don’t really add up. There’s far more happening here than could be explained by a single dirty cop – and there’s no way of knowing just how high up it goes.

With only a few people that he can trust, Spenser takes it upon himself to uncover the truth. The only question is whether he can get to the bottom of things before someone manages to take him out.

So real talk – this movie is pretty dumb. There’s a lot here that doesn’t make a ton of sense, no matter how you try and slice it. More than anything, it feels like a 90-minute episode of a television series that you aren’t quite sure you want to keep watching, though I’ll concede that part of that probably springs from my foreknowledge of the (awesome) Robert Urich/Avery Brooks series. It comes off as unfinished in an odd way; even with a completed storyline, it feels like it just sort of trails off at the end.

And yet, I must admit that I actually had a pretty good time.

I have to give the Berg/Wahlberg pairing credit; these are two guys who know each other well – this marks their fifth collaborative effort – and seem to share a certain sensibility. No one does meatheaded sincerity quite like Wahlberg, while the only director to do a better job than Berg in harnessing that tendency is probably Paul Thomas Anderson, who deserves credit for seeing the potential in the first place.

(Isn’t it kind of remarkable that Mark Wahlberg is a movie star? As someone who came of age in the pop cultural weirdness of the late ‘80s/early ‘90s, if you’d asked me who from that era of music would go on to big-time movie success, I’d have taken a LONG time to get to Marky Mark, Funky Bunch notwithstanding.)

Berg’s knack for straightforward action filmmaking is apparent in most of his work and certainly all of his team-ups with Wahlberg. There’s gunfire and fistfighting, though the violence is a bit haphazard in terms of tone. Still, it’s always fairly well-executed. This one is a little less self-serious than a lot of the other offerings, making a handful of gentle stabs at humor. Not particularly successful stabs, but hey – at least they gave it a go.

Wahlberg’s Spenser is basically like every other Wahlberg protagonist in a Peter Berg joint. He’s a little crude, but in a morally upstanding way, with a very clear concept of right and wrong; it’s all about the blue-collar heroism. And of course, we’re in Boston, where Wahlberg is most comfortable. It’s a fine performance for this film, by which I mean largely indistinguishable from 90% of Wahlberg’s filmography.

The supporting cast is wildly overqualified. Arkin is having a blast, leaning into his cranky old man wheelhouse. Duke is maybe the best thing in this movie, floating through the proceedings with an air of bemusement; one gets the sense he’s not entirely sure why he’s here, but he’s game for whatever. Shlesinger is all hard-R Boston townie; there might be some character under the accent, but who can tell? Guys like Gaston and Woodbine are pros and act like it. Oh, and Post Malone is in this for some reason.

“Spenser Confidential” isn’t good, but it is a good time. Frankly, that’s probably enough to get us another half-dozen of these things. When you’re doing the Netflix menu scan, you could do worse.

[2.5 out of 5]

Last modified on Wednesday, 11 March 2020 09:20

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