Written by Ram Venkat Srikar
Spenser Confidential is the cinematic equivalent of ‘sit back and relax on a lazy Saturday afternoon’. The Netflix original would befit the category ‘play in the background while scrolling through your phone’ if the platform ever adds one. Laced with mediocrity in every aspect, the film is at its best when seen through the aforementioned context, however, as a standalone film (I’ll address this point later), it’s mediocre. Extremely mediocre. I mean, pretty mediocre. Allow me to emphasize it one more time, it’s spectacularly mediocre. It takes effort to produce such a calculated end product, and it needs to be appreciated. It’s the intent that’s problematic. Neither reprehensible or terrible, just unambitious and aimless. If a film achieves what it intended to, it’s a good film. This is what I staunchly believe, and it stands true for most of the films. ‘Most’. Spenser is not one among them.
The fifth collaboration by Peter Berg & Mark Walhberg is on the downside of the duo’s filmography. Although nowhere near the coherent and focussed storytelling of Lone Survivor, Deepwater Horizon, and Patriots Day, it is not as juvenile as Mile 22 – which still is at the lowest end of the duo’s spectrum – either. Not far from it, though.
The contention is the laid back tonality. It wouldn’t have been an issue had the tone worked in favor of the narrative. It really is a puzzle to figure out what umbrella does the film’s genre fall under. It’s evidently a matter of choice. It’s not funny enough to be a comedy. Not captive enough to be a thriller. There’s hardly one action set piece to classify it an action. Lacks the potency to be a drama. Then what is it? Well, it’s a bit of all. There’s a little mystery, a half-baked vengeance backdrop, and a sloppy buddy-bonding tale. It’s got almost everything and still is hollow on the inside. Mistaking it for light-heartedness is a pitfall. It’s lazy.
Mark Walhberg plays the titular character, a Boston Police Department Sergeant (paints a completely different picture of Patriots Day), who returns to the real world after five-year imprisonment for assaulting his Captain, John Boylan (Michael Gaston). When Boylan is murdered and the suspected murderer Terrence Graham commits suicide – on the same day Spenser is released – the former-convict & ex-sergeant sets out to find the miscreants behind the crime. It’s a classic case of “could have been”. These are things Spenser Confidential could have been. A captive whodunit. A violent mob drama. A satisfying revenge story. An underdog story where a police officer fights for his long-lost honor. The film is anything but these, in spite of the availability of all the facets to tell a compelling story.
Nevertheless, the screenplay is overjoyed being lackadaisical and takes forever it get to the conflict. Based on the character created by Robert B. Parker, the film is an adaptation of Wonderland, one among the fifty novels spanning the character’s adventures. I seriously wonder if the film does justice to its source material. I’d be further worried if it does because the film drops a thread on your face to continue the character’s story, and it isn’t something you’d look forward to.
The sheer lack of effectiveness is evident. When the police knock at Spenser’s door the next morning of Boylan’s murder, there’s hardly any tension. It’s a moment that could ruin the man’s new-found life. The film never mounts on moments like this. The charming side, though, is backed by Hawk (an in-form Winston Duke) and Henry (the Alan Arkin, wearing comedy up his sleeve). The trio is even referred to as Batman, Robin, and Alfred by Cissy Davis, Spenser’s former lover (Iliza Shlesinger, in her comfort-Netflix-standup-zone).
As mentioned, Spenser works better when it wears the ‘don’t take me seriously’ tag around its neck. In one of the few funny scenes, Spenser blasts through a shop, commanding for CCTV footage. When he asks the guy in the shop to hand him over the hard disk, the guy replies they store footage in the cloud. Spenser’s reaction here is super-funny. The man spent five years in prison, and he doesn’t know what the cloud is. It’s all visible in his face. The film had a terrific opportunity to use Spenser’s lack of understanding of the contemporary world. Well, it’s only five years, not fifty, but it’s an opportunity the writers never leverage on.
Being a thriller, predictability is the most magnanimous antagonist it faces. The reveals are futile, and the chances of an out-of-the-box twist are nonexistent. The final act, which houses the only action set-piece, is terribly feeble and ineptly staged. It’s literally the bad guys waiting for Spenser to come and kick their asses. It’s generic and poorly staged, two traits I can correlate the complete movie with.
P.S.: On a completely unrelated note, why is every studio striving to build franchises? Can’t they just make a standalone movie, and leave it. Like Iron Man.