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Movie Review

Spenser Confidential


Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Winston Duke, Alan Arkin, Lliza Schlesinger, Austin Post (aka Post Malone), Bokeem Woodbine and Hope Olaidé Wilson
Director: Peter Berg
Certificate: R, violence & language
Running time: 111 mins
Release Date: 06 March 2020

Be forewarned. This is going to get nasty. The Hollowood critical studio establishment hates other film producers and anything that doesn’t feed the 90210 zip code trough: Texas, Atlanta, Canada, Mexico, U.K., Germany, Bollywood, Beijing, the dark side of the moon, all movies coming from outside the inner circle. Reviewer Kristy Puchko, writing for the (dirt napping) Roger Ebert trademark, (as quoted in IMDb) fires the predictable fusillade:

“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 OkjaNoah Baumbach made Marriage StoryMartin Scorsese made The Irishman. And Peter Berg made Spenser Confidential, an insipid buddy-cop mystery that feels like a forgotten artifact of the 1980s.”

Oh, cop on. Hollywood studios are scared. Their bank is no longer needed. Their distribution/exhibition deals extraneous. Their reputation secondary. How dare creators let themselves be “lured away” to realize their dreams. How dare the evil monster Netflix dangle freedom in front of filmmakers. One would think Netflix loves movies or some such artsy-fartsy mumbo jumbo.

Hollywood press reviews are an industry within the industry, an adjunct of market and promotion. I know of a producer of a little independent dark satire who approached the major Los Angeles newspaper for a review. Sure, came the business-like rote, $5,000 and no guarantee for entry in the actual rag, just the archive.

Alright then, enough vitriol, I love Spenser Confidential. I love Peter Berg’s direction and his restless camera (D.P. Tobias Schliessler) always foraging for… humanity. And I love Mark Wahlberg for “getting” what the Robert Parker mystique is all about and honouring the departed master who took on the task of finishing the novel the immortal Raymond Chandler could not complete because of his own big sleep, Poodle Springs.

Wahlberg is the Zeus here. He has the tiger’s eye to make the movie live and breathe (his executive producer credit is of quarterback status) and he believes in Wuxia (literally, wǔ : "martial", "military", or "armed" and X : “chivalrous", "vigilante" or "hero/heroine"; see The Fate of Lee Kahn, Blu-ray/DVD Dual Format, in the sumptuous Eureka Masters of Cinema Series reviewed herein). It is the courageous lone warrior for justice (male or female) against overwhelming corruption. Not “a forgotten artifact of the 1980s” but a timeless tale of the individual against the mob. Wahlberg is a true believer and this is a continuing theme in his films alongside the preciousness of family and friends.

His Boston cop, Spenser, has done five years in Walpole Prison where, on his last day he’s asked by Squeeb an inmate of Ayran sympathies and the facial tattoos to prove it, “How many cops get to do their time in general pop?” It’s a prelude to an assassination attempt which is the first demo of Wahlberg’s skill at prison fighting. All the action throughout will be authentically knowledgeable.

The attempt to kill him raises questions for Spenser and then the rapid murder of two fellow officers from his past -- one he hates, one he knew to be good -- puts the hook in him. When the good cop’s wife who discovers her slain husband it’s virtuoso cinema. Berg follows her continuously from inside a bus, across a street to react in horror amidst oncoming traffic screeching to a stop, then pulls back and up for a master shot tableau in the sunshiny Boston day [16:14 - 18:00] and, no, it’s not the extravagance of Sam Mendes in 1917 or Spectre, it transcends those gee-whiz gymnastics for the sake of sublimated psychological identification. Immersive without a “Look Mum, no hands!” pretentiousness.

Spenser’s dog Pearl no longer loves him, she’s been usurped by his half-way house roommate, Hawk (Winston Duke) whom Spenser nonetheless teaches to improve his fight game. Their half-way house host, Henry (Alan Arkin) runs the gym where Hawk trains. Spenser’s love, Cissy (Lliza Shlesinger) appears to hate him at first but her true feel for his nobility and his, you know…

The acting is fun, believable and absorbing. The wit is dry, deadpan and eloquent to the street. The pure spirit of Robert Parker has been respected by screenwriters Sean O’Keefe and Brian Helgeland and the original score by Steve Jablonsky and the compilation of established hits becomes a rueful sub-rosa commentary. The plot is as lean as Wahlberg’s “built” body and never loses pace.

At the very, very end when all the majors are back together (you didn’t think they died did you?) Spenser sees a TV news story of an old friend, a firefighter, being arrested for a horrific arson that burned up children. The man pleads he would never have done such a thing, he has kids himself and he needs somebody to help him. Spenser’s friends see the look in his eyes, hear the recognition in his voice that this was a good guy and they chorus, “No… no… come on… huh-uh…” and we can tell Spenser isn’t hearing them and we know in our hearts we’re witnessing the birth of a franchise. I’ll watch for it. Thank you Mark Wahlberg and thank you Netflix.


John Huff

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