Spenser Confidential is both ideal for Netflix and also the embodiment of everything wrong with what a Netflix movie can be. Sure, the streamer backs auteurs like Martin Scorsese and Noah Baumbach, but Peter Berg‘s new movie isn’t designed to be watched as much as it’s supposed to play in the background while you screw around on your phone. There’s nothing special about this story or how it’s executed. No one in 2020 has ever thought, “Man, if only there were a movie where Mark Wahlberg plays a tough cop/criminal,” (in this movie, he’s both!). Hardly anything in this movie is remotely interesting, but it’s not supposed to be interesting. It’s comfort food of noise and color and letting Mark Wahlberg do what’s he done for over 20 years. For some viewers, this will be all that they ask for, especially as a pandemic keeps them in doors and glued to their streaming services. But if your only goal is to be entertained for two hours, you could do far better than Spenser Confidential.
Spenser (Wahlberg) is a cop who was sentenced to five years in prison for beating up his superior officer. Newly released from prison and hoping to make a life as a big rig driver, Spenser is drawn back into the world of crime when that superior officer and another cop turn up dead under mysterious circumstances. Unable to let the case rest as a presumed murder-suicide, Spenser does some digging with the help of his new roommate Hawk (Winston Duke) despite the protestations of his ornery friend Henry (Alan Arkin) and aggressive ex-girlfriend Cissy (Iliza Shelsinger). That digging usually involves Spenser asking questions, getting into a fight, learning a little more information, and repeating until the full conspiracy makes itself known.
Berg’s latest film is one people will turn on Netflix because it’s new and it has Mark Wahlberg and then they’ll just leave it running. It’s almost impressive how Spenser Confidential makes no demands of it audience. It carries an attitude of vague Boston pride, has Wahlberg playing a variation on a role he’s done countless times before, and you’ll have solved the crime conspiracy in the first twenty minutes. There’s no real mystery or twist or anything to upend audience expectations, which is fine if you nail the execution, but everything in Spenser Confidential feels lazy and half-hearted. You can’t look at a previous collaboration between Berg and Wahlberg like Deepwater Horizon where you can tell they’re really trying to honor the story and do right by its subjects and think it’s on the same level as Spenser Confidential, a movie where Spenser and his ex hook up in a restaurant restroom and we get a needle drop of Foreigner’s “Feels Like the First Time” because, you see, the sex they’re having in the bathroom feels like the sex they had when they first got together.
When the filmmaking is this lazy and disinterested, it’s difficult for the viewer not to follow suit, but on Netflix, lazy and disinterested still counts as a view (hell, if you make it past the first two minutes it counts as a view). This isn’t some scrappy project that no one wanted to fund because the storytelling was too bold or esoteric. It’s just kind of forgettable dreck that no one wanted to fund because Berg and Wahlberg’s last effort, Mile 22, made $36 million at the domestic box office and a rote crime thriller starring Wahlberg isn’t the draw it used to be. Even when there are elements that work like Duke’s soft-spoken performance or Shelsinger showing that some other movie is going to use her to much better effect, most of Spenser Confidential just kind of washes over you as inoffensive and unchallenging.
It’s clear that Spenser Confidential is meant to birth a crime thriller (or “action-comedy” as Netflix calls it because Wahlberg cracks some jokes and it is therefore “comedy”) franchise, and in more interesting hands, that would be worth it. I was fully on board with a Jack Reacher series—another tough guy who punches his way to the truth—until Never Go Back showed you needed the right take on the material to make it work. On paper, Mark Wahlberg beating up bad guys to fight corruption sounds alright, but based on this first offering, all you’re going to get is a lot of “They’re dirty cawps!” and “I want answers!” as Spenser goes on his little crusade to bring down a corrupt system by hitting it a bunch of times. It’s a film that’s content to exist whether it captures your interest or not.
Spenser Confidential is now streaming on Netflix.