With deep pockets and the promise of creative freedom, Netflix has been luring noted directors away from Hollywood studios to create their dream projects. Bong Joon-ho made "Okja." Noah Baumbach made "Marriage Story." Martin Scorsese made "The Irishman." And Peter Berg made "Spenser Confidential," an insipid buddy-cop mystery that feels like a forgotten artifact of the 1980s.
Based on the Robert B. Parker novel Wonderland, "Spenser Confidential" stars Mark Wahlberg as a Boston cop who plays by his own rules. As the opening of this flummoxing film reveals, his rules include beating the hell out of a commanding officer because you suspect he beats his wife. Who needs evidence when you have a gut feeling?! In an age where police brutality commonly sparks headlines, that action trope has lost its charm. But this flick plays it safe by making sure that Wahlberg's white cop only beats up other white cops or white supremacists. Okay, and he brawls with some people of color, but only when they are machete-wielding drug dealers who wear hoodies and kill good, rule-following cops who are Black! See, Spenser is the good guy because he's hunting the real killer of a murdered Black officer who was framed for killing another white cop, who played by his own rules … but in a bad way, not a cool "bad boy" Spenser way! Got it? It doesn't matter.
The plot is gobbledygook, flinging out a few grisly flashbacks, a slew of stock baddies like a tracksuit-sporting hitman, and a generous slathering of police corruption. Every aspect of the story feels like a copy of a copy to the point where you might begin to experience déjà vu and wonder if you've seen this lame movie before? Maybe on some lazy Sunday where you spent half your time on your phone? Well, your time would be better spent there. Much of the cast can't even get up the energy to care about this lackluster movie.
Given dialogue that's 90% clichéd old-man moaning, Alan Arkin shrugs and mugs as the Alfred to Wahlberg's Batman. His shining moment is when he hassles some kidnappers about needing to pee. It's a cheap laugh, but his annoyance seems genuine. In an abrupt cameo, grumbling podcaster/comedian Marc Maron tosses his agita shtick into a brief rant about "fake news bullsh*t." Though in the thankless role of Spenser's former partner, Bokeem Woodbine brings a bit of spark with that signature smile and some line deliveries that occasionally zing. Also, face-tattooed rapper Post Malone pops up to play a Nazi jailbird. The best I can say about his performance is he seems stoked to be there! The worst is he should keep his day job.
Only one performer in "Spenser Confidential" seems to have a handle on what kind of movie she's in. Stand-up comic Iliza Shlesinger plays Spenser's girlfriend Cissy. It's a paper-thin role of the nagging bitch that exists purely to tease cleavage and be a pain in the ass to the harried hero. But Shlesinger knows that and leans in so hard that Cissy becomes a chaotic parody of this tired stereotype. She makes a meal out of this. Her Boston accent is as thick as the city's clam chowder. Her face is a parade of expressions so stark they could all be emojis. But best of all, everything she says (mostly insults) feels refreshingly spontaneous. Either Berg let her improvise left and right, or she's the only performer who managed to bring life to Sean O'Keefe and Brian Helgeland's limp script. That one star at the top of the review? That's for her.
High performance. Delivered.
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