Spenser: For Hire was one of those cool TV shows that thrived in the 80s and managed to endure through spin-offs and TV movies well into the 90s. It’s not a stretch to see a similar future for the Netflix movie Spenser Confidential, which updates the series for a new generation with stars Mark Wahlberg and Winston Duke.
Screenwriters Sean O’Keefe (The Escapist) and Brian Helgeland (42) adapt the character from Robert B. Parker’s novels and Ace Atkins’ 2020 story Wonderland confidently for the Netflix screen. The script plays out in a way that functions as an origin story of sorts while having all the classic elements of Parker’s stories to appeal to longtime fans. And it’s got the standard elements of a throwback 80s TV series without dipping too long in the nostalgia pool.
Spenser (Wahlberg) just completed his five-year prison stint after assaulting his police superior. While he’s back out, not too many folks are happy to see him particularly his ex-peers among the Boston Police Department. At least he’s got one ally in his old partner, Driscoll (Bokeem Woodbine, Queen & Slim).
In a great casting coup, Alan Arkin (Going in Style) plays Spenser’s mentor, who sets him up with a part-time gig and a place to stay albeit with a somewhat eccentric roommate named Hawk (Duke, Us). Spenser also has to deal with his ex-girlfriend Cissy (Iliza Shlesinger), who lost the remnants of her filter decades ago.
When an old colleague turns up dead, Spenser considers letting the justice system play out before realizing justice is largely blind and investigating the case on his own. This is an easy role for Wahlberg, who can do swagger-filled charismatic leading man performances in his sleep now. While Wahlberg can’t bring turn on the dramatic chops as easily as TV series star Robert Urich, his take plays up to his strengths and less his weaknesses.
Wahlberg reunites with his frequent director collaborator Peter Berg, who has a knack for putting his star in the most heroic light in films like Lone Survivor, Mile 22, Deepwater Horizon and Patriots Day.
Berg takes a welcome different approach this time and opts against portraying Wahlberg’s Spenser like a superhero. How many times have you seen a hero stumble across a dog in a backyard only to narrowly escape? The instances where the dog actually gets the hero is dramatically fewer. Spenser gets his tail kicked pretty often in a nice change of pace from the invulnerable street level man of the people hero.
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Spenser Confidential has a heavy Boston flavor like the series and the only thing missing was an actual stop at Fenway or running into Matt Damon and Ben Affleck.
It takes more time for Berg to get a handle on his take on the Spenser/Hawk dynamic. Wahlberg and Duke play off each other well almost immediately, but Berg finds his groove with them around the film’s halfway point. Duke isn’t asked to play Hawk as smooth and suave as Avery Brooks, which would have been a mistake, although the core of the character is intact. This is a smart showcase role for Duke as this is a character he can settle into for more Spenser sequels or his own Hawk spin-off film.
Less successful is the handling of Cissy. Shlesinger gives her a fun no-holds barred demeanor, but her character isn’t treated consistently. Some earlier Cissy scenes could have been cut if the end result was just to plop her into the love interest role. Arkin is always fun in the crotchety supporting character roles and Marc Maron (Joker) establishes himself well despite brief screen time as a reporter ally for Spenser.
Berg doesn’t not trade in subtlety — especially with some brutally violent scenes — and he almost immediately starts teasing the bad guy, which naturally dulls the big reveal later on. But it makes no sense to expect delicate handling of plot points from a Berg film.
What he does well, particularly when partnering with Wahlberg, is delivering on some crazy action that manages to feel both outlandish and not that ridiculous in the same scene.
To his credit, Berg shows impressive restraint with Hawk in the action scenes so when he does get his big spotlight it’s very effective and funny.
Much like The Equalizer became an unexpected franchise vehicle for Denzel Washington, Spenser Confidential successfully adapts a vigilante style TV series. Just as important, it leaves the door wide open for the obvious sequel.
Rating: 8 out of 10
Photo Credit: Netflix