It’s back to Boston for Mark Wahlberg in the new Netflix crime flick “Spenser Confidential” so you know what that inevitably means, right?
There’s eventually going to have to be a fight with dirty cops in an Irish bar — sorry, it’s pronounced “bah” — while the Red Sox are playing on TV. Those are the rules.
Sure enough, the bar brawl arrives 30 minutes into this meandering film that tries to piggyback on the good will created by novelist Robert B. Parker’s wisecracking boxer-turned-private eye Spenser, played on TV by Robert Urich.
“Spenser Confidential” is a bit of a mess tonally with a plot that keeps attracting new weird layers, like lint on a sweater. It wants to be funnier than it is. It hopes to be deeper than it is.
Wahlberg as Spenser is an ex-con and an ex-police officer who gets out of prison only to stumble into a conspiracy that includes crooked cops, Dominican street gangs armed with machetes and dirty business investors pursuing gentrification and gambling. How high does it go? “High up,” he learns.
If there’s a Spenser, there has to be his buddy Hawk, and this role is filled awkwardly by Winston Duke. He’s a fine actor but screenwriters Sean O’Keefe and Brian Helgeland haven’t really integrated him well, making Hawk into Spenser’s roommate, an oat milk drinking, MMA fighter who adores animals.
This Spenser is such a good guy that even one of his enemies calls him a “choir boy.” Just ask his ex-girlfriend (Iliza Shlesinger), who has a love-hate relationship with him but admires his “strong moral code” even though she tells him: “You are incapable of real intimacy.” Contradicting herself sometime later, she screams “Go, Sox!” during sex with him, which is the most Boston thing to do.
Spenser was only sent to prison because he beat up his crooked police chief, who was, in turn, beating up his wife. He comes out of prison and immediately the chief is killed gruesomely. Spenser sticks his neck out to clear the name of a cop who has been framed for the murder. “Why are you doing this?” the widow asks Spenser. “Because it’s the right thing to do,” our good guy replies.
Like a stage musical that is propelled by its songs, this film moves thanks to its frequent violent outbursts. Director Peter Berg evenly spaces out the fight scenes so you can tell one is coming every 10 or 15 minutes. “Man, you get beat up a lot,” Hawk tells Spenser. (Everyone in this Boston seems to be a member of a boxing gym.)
In between the fights, “Spenser Confidential” reaches for film noir, like a “Chinatown” in Beantown (one character even has a toothpick sticking out of his mouth at all times). Sometimes it tries be a “Dirty Harry” movie or to ape the dark feel of “Gone Baby Gone.” Other times it tries to be a buddy comedy but with few actual laughs, unless you consider the line “Did you just kick me, bro?” funny.
Berg and Wahlberg have previously worked together on “Lone Survivor,” “Patriots Day” and “Deepwater Horizon.” Playing a renegade good guy is right up Wahlberg’s alley and to say he sleepwalks down that alley this time isn’t too harsh. On the positive side, some nifty acting turns are offered from Post Malone and Marc Maron.
But there are some head-scratching moments, including a man-versus-dog fight that serves no purpose and an attempt to reach for a sequel when the first one hasn’t been earned. And why does Spenser sometimes write down all his clues, pointlessly circling and underlining words on a notepad like “Why?”