Mark Wahlberg and director Peter Berg are in it for the long haul. After raking in dough and semi-decent reviews for Lone Survivor in 2014, the pair have been inseparable ever since, even in the face of diminishing returns. Deepwater Horizon, probably their best effort, failed at the box office under the weight of a gargantuan budget. Patriot’s Day and Mile 22 fared worse thereafter, which brings us to their latest collaboration, a Netflix venture that signals a potential shift in Marky Mark’s career as well as final admittance that people won’t pay for their brand of sensitive machismo anymore. Streaming is a different bargain, and so Spenser Confidential has topped the Netflix charts for the better part of a week despite looking like a bargain bin action movie of the week. It’s a little bit better than that, but it’s definitely reminiscent of any crime serial you can find on CBS on a Tuesday night.
Save a Battleship or two, Peter Berg’s career has mostly consisted of gritty, hyper-realistic true stories such as those aforementioned films, as well as the best of them, Friday Night Lights. With Confidential, he returns to the violent buddy comedy that more or less made his career in The Rundown, a mid-aughts sleeper hit that positioned Dwayne Johnson as the heir to Arnold’s action-hero throne. Wahlberg is a Boston cop-turned-ex-con whose moral compass won’t let him look away when the dirty cop conspiracy that got him behind bars rears its head again and threatens his lobsta-eating neighborhood. Bunking at his mentor’s (Alan Arkin) old house with a roomie (Winston Duke) who trains MMA, it’s only a matter of time before blue-collar white guy and wannabe-athlete black guy team up to better their neck of the woods. Arkin repeats the same performance he’s been shouting for the last ten years, Duke is exceptionally less interesting here than he was in Black Panther or Us, and Wahlberg flashes that movie star charm as another lunkhead Bostonian. They’re all remotely enjoyable, given enough funny dialogue and action-hurrah moments to deliver competent entertainment.
That’s likely the best way to describe Spenser Confidential: competent if unremarkable entertainment. It’s a sign of Berg’s decline that he’s been forced to return to what amounts to an extended crime serial, right down to the black-and-white flashbacks showing the scene of the crime, set to overwrought voice-overs and the victim’s cries. There was an opportunity here to explore city politics and law enforcement corruption on a deeper level. This isn’t that movie though. This is infinitely closer to C.S.I. Boston than The Departed or something politically turbulent like Dragged Across Concrete. It’s also a movie nearly stolen by an actress and comedian named Iliza Schlesinger, a darkly hilarious one-time Joe Rogan guest who really ups the funny ante here as a Boston caricature. She’s a hard-working woman who takes no ounce of shit, takes what she wants (including boyfriend Spenser in a bar bathroom), and berates anybody who disagrees. She’s the girl most films of this ilk treat as an unlikable shrew to be discarded for the nicer, prettier lady, only this time the movie embraces her and treats her like the sneakily great character that she is.
Iliza, a couple of nifty action beats, and a mixed martial arts subplot make Spenser Confidential just different enough to avoid failure, if not mediocrity. Wahlberg, for his part, adds to his repertoire of Boston-based bruiser flicks as he continues a varied career of thrillers, comedies, and occasional gestures toward prestige (All the Money in the World, had it been better). He’s adopted an on-screen persona that he carries from film to film, a tough guy omerta and sense of humor that is the antithesis of his greatest roles (Boogie Nights, I Heart Huckabees). If you believe the HBO series Entourage is accurately based on his showbiz life, then it makes sense why we see him play the meathead hero again and again. Confidential is markedly better than the worst of them, and yet may not be worth your time at home depending on your mileage for bloody, semi-funny, wannabe gritty thrillers.