' ' Cinema Romantico: Spenser Confidential

Monday, March 30, 2020

Spenser Confidential

The mononymous Spenser (Mark Wahlberg) of Robert B. Parker’s novels which begat a 1980s TV show that begat a series of made-for-TV movies begins Peter Berg’s Netflix movie as an ex-cop behind bars for assaulting his Captain, John Boylan (Michael Gaston). Once Spenser is out, a former colleague is found dead in a murder-suicide, suspected of killing the same Captain he went to prison for roughing up. The burgeoning private eye, however, forgoing starting a new life by getting certified as a long-haul trucker, opens his own investigation, promising the slain colleague’s widow he will get to the bottom of the things despite, as he says, having “flaws. A lot of ‘em.” I thought, “Does he?” The “Spenser” script, penned by Brian Helgeland, takes immense care to write off each of Spenser’s questionable tactics as ethically justified. That includes his violent attack of Captain Boylan, seen in frigidly colored flashbacks, inserted amidst present-day plotting that made me fear the Oscar voter who struggled so terribly to follow “Little Women’s” time jumps must have struggled to follow “Spenser Confidential” too, where Boylan is seen physically abusing his wife. And though Spenser’s ex-girlfriend Cissy (Iliza Shlesinger) seems to abhor him and want nothing to do with him, she also explicitly seeks him out for a bathroom tryst, a scene suggesting Spenser gets to have his cake and eat it too. Flaws? Lots of ‘em? Nah, he seems like the consummate Man®.

The plot itself involves corruption with the police force, beginning with the Captain and then trickling down to Spenser’s ostensible friend, Detective Driscoll (Bokeem Woodbine). Woodbine evinces portent simply in his grin, not to mention the way he twiddles a toothpick between his teeth, a narrative plant that will give him away. That toothpick, though, is emblematic of the uncomplicated and unimaginative investigative dots, like when Spenser emerges from a building just as the suspicious yellow corvette he’s been seeking happens to drive by. What’s more successful, if not amusing, even fascinating, is Wayne Cosgrove, a muckraking investigative journalist working on the sly with Spenser to expose the crooked cops. Wayne is played by Marc Maron with his patented weary, kind of “C’mon, man” air as someone whose job has been so maddeningly redefined by – quote-unquote – Fake News that even when he finds himself face to face with a whole van pull of contraband he still wavers on whether it’s enough evidence to convince all the indoctrinated idiots.

This pro-press argument belies Peter Berg’s real-life left leaning politics, which are often at odds with his conservative feeling films. (Then again, one of the two federal agents Spenser pseudo works with is basically right out of central high school nerd casting.) What’s also at odds with Berg’s typical m.o. is the aesthetic. Normally reliant on the shaky cam school of cinema to inject nominal grit, Berg reigns in his camera’s movement, relying on cleaner edits. Cleaner edits in quieter scenes of characters conversing, yes, but even in many of the action set pieces. When Spenser and his Magical MMA Negro roommate Hawk (Winston Duke) send a truck careening off a freeway by hurling a sledgehammer through its windshield from the overpass, Berg simply shows the two men walk from one side of the bridge to the other, switching to a shot over their shoulder to see the truck wide up in the ditch, comically downplaying rather than wildly turning the moment up. Other scenes have a similar wry tone, whether it’s Spenser confronting toughs in prison and or a gaggle of angry cops in a bar, each one scored to classic rock, rendering it more as Spenser having run than being truly imperiled.

The conclusion, alas, deviates from that kind of fun, aside from one prolonged payoff tying back to Spenser’s ostensible long-haul trucking dreams. Otherwise, the Big Shootout isn’t much, settled so effortlessly, in fact, that Spenser winds up with the preeminent baddie in custody quicker than you’d expect. Then again, once he has him cowed, he lets him go, in a manner of speaking, imploring that they go mano-a-mano in a mixed martial arts showdown. It’s pretty stupid but also, its own way, the funniest and most revealing thing in the movie, temporarily stopping himself from saving the day to prove he’s a man.


Alex Withrow said...

This is why I love reading your posts. I thought this movie was pretty stupid as well, but you're so right about the hilarity of that final fight. He stops everything to prove he's A Man. I never even realized that haha.

Nick Prigge said...

Ha, thanks! I appreciate that! It's good to hear from you, Alex. Hope all is well. Stay safe and healthy out there, man.