Spencer Confidential
Credit: Daniel McFadden/Netflix

Spenser Confidential (2020 Movie)

Boston, Mark Wahlberg, Peter Berg: These three things together should be the banana-peanut-butter-jelly sandwich of action-man cinema. Spenser Confidential marks the fifth pairing of the actor and the director in less than a decade, after all, and their second set in Wahlberg's hometown; wouldn’t they only be getting better at this by now?

Instead, the duo’s first collaboration for Netflix feels less like a thriller fitted for the small screen than a sort of supersized block of crime-time television: an episodic John Wick for all the classic-rock dads patiently waiting for their own small corner of the streaming universe to be served. (If every song on the soundtrack isn’t actually Thin Lizzy, it might as well be.)

Maybe those dads have fond memories of Spenser: For Hire, the show starring Robert Urich that aired on ABC from 1985 to 1988. Or maybe they’ve read the late Robert B. Parker’s best-selling detective series, now carried on by Ace Atkins.

Confidential is loosely adapted from an Atkins novel called Wonderland, though you can probably wing it without the full mythology: Spenser — only the weak need more than a surname — was a Boston cop who pummeled his wife-beating captain, Boylan (played here by The Leftovers’ Michael Gaston), in the heat of the moment, and pulled down a five-year sentence for assault.

Now he’s getting out, but someone has already sent a message from inside (via the rapper-turned-actor Post Malone, no less) that he won’t be receiving a warm welcome at home.

Spenser's old friend Henry (Alan Arkin) at least, seems happy enough to see him — though his hospitality doesn’t extend to giving him his own room. Instead he has to bunk up with a taciturn young boxer called Hawk (Black Panther’s underused Winston Duke).

So when his old captain turns up dead in an execution-style killing and a respected fellow officer takes the fall, Spenser puts off his plans to become a trucker in Arizona to turn freelance investigator, with a little help from his erstwhile roommates.

Arkin and Duke deliver their own dry buddy comedy on the side, and Wahlberg brings both his grim determination and his naked torso, still veal-tender at 48. (Iliza Shlesinger drops in too, as Spenser's exasperated, chowda-talking ex). But the business of catching and killing unfolds so schematically that it’s hard to invest much in Confidential’s reinforced-cardboard characters and bloody plod of a plot.

Even its star’s beloved city hardly merits much exploration beyond a few obligatory harbor shots. So what is left to do but surrender to the Tao of Wahlberg? Fists will smash; pecs will flex; hard consonants, like dirty cops, don't stand a chance. It's the only sure thing in this crazy world, kids — except maybe a sequel. C+

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Spenser Confidential (2020 Movie)
Mark Wahlberg and Peter Berg's first collaboration for Netflix, 'Spenser Confidential,' feels less like an action movie fitted for the small screen than a supersized block of crime-time television.
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