Ex-cop Spenser is just out of prison and is leaving Boston for good when he gets roped into helping promising amateur MMA fighter Hawk. When two of Spenser’s former colleagues are murdered, he recruits Hawk and his foul-mouthed ex-girlfriend Cissy to help him investigate and bring the culprits to justice.
“Ah! when will this long weary day have end”
Fans of Elizabethan poetry might recognise the quote by Edmund Spenser. Watchers of the new Netflix movie Spenser Confidential will definitely recognise the sentiment. Because under the ham fists of Mark Wahlberg and Peter Berg, Robert B Parker’s much-loved detective novels have been reduced to a charm-free, suspenseless piece of TV wallpaper that won’t even stick in your brain long enough for you to dislike it.
The Spenser novels are hugely popular – Parker wrote some 40 titles, and the series was taken over by the splendidly alliterative Ace Atkins after his death and shows no sign of slowing down.
It’s little surprise that they have been filmed on more than one occasion. Most famous is TV series Spenser for Hire, with Robert Urich’s Spenser joined by Deep Space Nine’s Avery Brooks as Hawk (who was popular enough to get his own spin off), but Joe Mantegna also starred in a series of TV movies.
So now it’s Netflix’s turn, with a movie loosely based on an Ace Atkins novel. Mark Wahlberg is the man himself, and this time Hawk is Winston Duke, last seen in Jordan Peele’s Us and the Black Panther / Avengers films.
Superficially Wahlberg is an obvious fit, just as Peter Berg seems to be the ideal director – both specialise in a certain type of macho role that the book’s hero can, at first glance, seem to epitomise: a “take all the hits and keep standing”, lady-lovin’ good guy who hides a steely moral code behind a cocky demeanour.
But, like the Jack Reacher books that are Parker’s obvious successor, it’s easy to misread their “don’t mess with me” heroes as… well, macho pricks, and cast accordingly. (Let’s draw a veil over the spectacular miscasting of Tom Cruise as the 6 feet 5 Reacher, shall we?) When in fact, both Reacher and Spenser are far more nuanced than their reputations suggest, the books happy to examine the macho culture they inhabit.
And… well, neither Wahlberg nor Berg have a reputation for that kind of introspection. (Book Spenser frequently tells people his name is “spelled with an s, like the poet”. Netflix Spenser acts like the only use he would have for a book is to hit people with it.)
You can tell the film is aiming low from the start, when ex-cop Spenser is jailed for beating up a corrupt, wife-beating superior (it is established very early that Spenser Cares About Women, though the film itself doesn’t seem to). We see what is unmistakably a prison exterior; we cut to what is unmistakably a prison interior. A giant label flashes up: PRISON. Not where, not giving us any context or location, just there, presumably, in case we were too stupid to follow the plot.
Most of the books’ back story is jettisoned, along with the characterisation that made them so readable. Wahlberg does a sterling performance as a man who has had every ounce of charisma surgically removed, but anything beyond that seems to stretch him.
In place of the books’ coolly sophisticated Susan Silverman, his love interest is a foul-mouthed poodle groomer called Cissy (a cruelly under-used Iliza Shlesinger), with whom he enjoys one deeply unsexy sex scene. I’d say it was only there to make sure that his buddy-buddy relationship with Hawk wasn’t too homoerotic, except there’s no chemistry between them either.
Anyone hoping for the enigmatic Hawk of the books – or even that Duke would bring some of that glacial menace he employed as an ice-eyed gangster in Person of Interest – will be sorely disappointed by this clumsy, grumpy sidekick. He admittedly gets the best line of the movie (“Hawk is a motherfucker who carries a shotgun – Spenser does your taxes”) and some of its best moments, but that’s not saying much.
If this was just a shlocky, funny movie, many of its sins could be forgiven, but it wants to have its cake and eat it, and also thinks a cake is a casserole. It never seems to be able to decide whether it’s one of those arthouse Ben Affleck / Dennis Lehane Boston crime dramas, or just a dumb, fun action flick, and as a result falls short of both.
The action scenes are weirdly unexciting, the pace meanders, the plot (corrupt police, how high does the rot go, trust no one, blah blah) is mainly powered by people doing Dumb Shit, and though character actors like Alan Arkin, Michael Gaston and Bokeem Woodbine give it their all, Sean O’Keefe and Brian Helgeland’s leaden script gives them little to work with.
Netflix clearly hopes this is the start of a franchise – the ending has a set up for a sequel that’s about as subtle as the rest of the film – and, given the way the world is going to hell, it probably will be. But honestly? I’d just read the books.
Spenser Confidential is currently available on Netflix
Tracey Sinclair is a freelance writer and editor. She writes regularly for online and print publications including Exeunt and The Stage, and is the author of eight books. A former subtitler and eternal geek, Tracey has a particular interest in Korean, Japanese and French films and anything to do with space or superheroes. You can follow her on Twitter under the profoundly misleading name @thriftygal
Watch the Spenser Confidential trailer: