Early on in Spenser Confidential, the ex-cop and soon-to-be-ex-con Spenser (Mark Wahlberg) mocks a guard for repeating a joke he first made when our hero arrived in prison. “Why don’t you get some new material?” Bold words for a film that consists of at least 90% recycled matter: stale gags, cardboard characters, and every possible script cliché involving bad cops, mismatched buddy movies, and the city of Boston. Which is to say that while the partnership between Wahlberg and actor-turned-director Peter Berg has produced a few duds since the success of Lone Survivor, none have been as generically mediocre. At the very least, one can appreciate it for being environmentally friendly.
That the film is meant as a departure from the Berg-Wahlberg duo’s usual salutes to teeth-gritting, persistent American heroes (including their earlier trip to Boston in Patriots Day) is not much of a selling point; that it mostly blows is self-evident. Spenser, who spent five years behind bars for beating up his captain, has a personality that basically amounts to that single look of irritated confusion that is the signature mode of coasting through a film for Beantown’s self-appointed favorite son. We know Spenser is a good guy because the opening scene shows us that the captain he beat up was a real scumbag—dirty and a domestic abuser to boot.
We know he’s an even better guy because when said scumbag is found decapitated in a school bus parking lot just days after Spenser’s release, with the killing pinned on an old police academy classmate in an obviously staged murder-suicide, our man gets to work uncovering the Truth, even though he has previously voiced a very strong desire to become a truck driver and move to Arizona. Besides being from Boston and looking annoyed, these are the character’s only defining traits.
Seeing as he isn’t too popular with his old colleagues, Spenser has limited resources at his disposal. He’s moved in with his old friend Henry (Alan Arkin), a gym owner who has turned his row home into an informal halfway house where Spenser is made to share a room with Hawk (Winston Duke), a soft-spoken ex-con and aspiring MMA fighter with a preference for health food. Duke, who stole scenes in Black Panther before playing a very different kind of jocular giant as the dad in Us, brings an understated charm to this underwritten part, which mostly consists of getting on Spenser’s nerves and yelling when a car goes really fast.
Hawk eventually becomes something like Spenser’s sidekick. Later, they find more supposedly unlikely allies in Spenser’s ex-girlfriend (Iliza Shlesinger, trying to breathe some life into a role that largely amounts to nagging in a Boston accent) and a retired crime reporter (Marc Maron, looking as peeved as every other character in the film). That’s the kind of listless predictability that defines Sean O’Keefe and Brian Helgeland’s screenplay, which was loosely adapted from one of the more recent books in the long-running Spenser series created and originally written by the late Robert B. Parker. (In those novels, which were previously adapted into an ’80s TV series starring Robert Urich and a handful of TV movies starring Joe Mantegna, Spenser was a typical post-mid-century tough-guy private eye with a snub-nosed .38 Special.)
As an action-comedy, Spenser Confidential fails on both fronts: It isn’t funny, and its bursts of action are both unimpressive and scarce. Setting aside the feigned immediacy of the handheld camerawork that has become his default, Berg directs in a style that more stolidly recalls The Rundown, his earlier attempt at the genre. But whereas that film was at least buoyed by the burgeoning charisma of Dwayne Johnson, this one aims its attention at a pointless mystery that involves real estate development (don’t they all?) and a conglomeration of criminal elements, including machete-wielding drug traffickers and the kind of track-suited Irish mobsters that the film admits—in a moment of eye-roll-inducing self-awareness—only exist in bad movies. An ending that teases the possibility of sequels, with Wahlberg’s Spenser tackling more cases of police officers and emergency personnel who have been falsely accused of crimes, should elicit nothing but groans.