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Taking into consideration what makes up the basic buddy movie formula, Spenser Confidential is a film that looks great on paper. The two-hander story pairs exciting up-and-comer Winston Duke opposite buddy movie veteran Mark Wahlberg; it has experienced action director Peter Berg at the helm; and it is co-written by L.A. Confidential’s Brian Helgeland, adapted from a best-selling series. The problem is that movies ultimately need to exist beyond their ingredients listed on paper, and when brought to life as the newest release distributed by Netflix, the basic genre formula is all it really has to offer.
Spenser Confidential very clearly wants to be the launching pad of a new series, but unfortunately what it brings to the table is a string of generic characters, and an overly-familiar plot. It has its peaks as it plays out its series of action beats and fight sequences with a comedic flair not typically seen in Mark Wahlberg-Peter Berg team-ups, but it’s a movie of mostly valleys as it unfolds trope after trope in the central narrative.
Feel free to keep count of the clichés on your hands as I lay out the plot, but be warned that you will run out of fingers.
The audience is introduced to Mark Wahlberg’s Spenser as he is finishing up the final hours of a prison sentence – an ex-cop shown to be not too well liked among the prisoner population via a cold open brawl. The violence excused away by a guard as “self-defense,” his release plans are kept on schedule, and he ends his incarceration walking into the welcoming arms of his elder mentor, Henry (Alan Arkin). Of course, what Henry fails to tell him is that there is a roommate waiting for him at home named Hawk (Winston Duke) – a tech savvy wannabe MMA fighter who inexplicably doesn’t know how to throw a punch.
Spenser starts to form an exit strategy, hoping to leave his past in Boston behind and start a new life for himself as a trucker, but finds those ambitions halted when he learns that his former captain (Michael Gaston) – a corrupt cop who our protagonist assaulted, leading to his arrest – has been murdered. A conspiracy is alleged as the finger is pointed at a police officer found dead, a suspected suicide, so Spenser teams up with Hawk to both prove the accused’s innocence, and take down those actually responsible.
A super basic plot never allows Spenser Confidential to get interesting.
By their nature, buddy movies are primarily meant to be driven by characters and the relationship between the leads, but even still there is some expectation for compelling story, and Spenser Confidential never even starts to get one going. There are some extremely minor tweaks in the familiar, like Spenser actually committing the crime he went to jail for instead of being the victim of a frame job, but that doesn’t take the movie far.
All the details of the investigation move the film in the exact directions you expect, and it fails to generate a single surprise or twist. Without saying too much in this spoiler-free forum, it’s obvious who the villains are just because of the transparency of certain roles getting a bit more focus in the casting process. It’s all simple and rote.
Mark Wahlberg and Winston Duke seem like they’d be a great on screen pair, but the material doesn’t allow it.
A further extension from the bland script, the film is also unable to cultivate the chemistry-filled dynamic that you want from Spenser and Hawk. Part of it comes from a lack of parity in the size of the roles, as the focus on the former in the movie definitely outweighs the focus on the latter, but the issues are mostly rooted in character, and how Spenser Confidential never makes a real focused effort to develop their relationship. They both bring their own tools and resources to the case, but spare for a few training scenes there’s never a moment where they fully click as a duo.
Given their past performances and characters, one could definitely see characters played by Mark Wahlberg and Winston Duke clicking on screen, but the movie never gives them the material needed to show them as a good fit.
At the very least, watching Spenser take a series of serious beatings is entertaining.
What certainly works in Spenser Confidential’s favor is the fact that it doesn’t ever take itself too seriously, and the best result of that is its fight scenes, most of which feature the titular character getting his ass whupped and being able to walk away only because of stamina and/or outside help. It’s charming to watch a hero constantly get knocked down – either by villains, or, in one particularly great sequence, a protective guard dog – and then get back up to keep fighting the good fight. It’s an energy you wish more of the film had.
Rather than being a raucous buddy movie or a taut Boston-set thriller, Spenser Confidential’s profile as a viewing experience is more akin to a film playing on television on Saturday morning: something you can play in the background and tune in and out of without ever losing track of the plot. It could certainly be much worse, but there is also a lot of potential left on the table.