“Man, you get beat up a lot,” an aspiring boxer tells the eponymous punching bag/pulp-fiction private eye Mark Wahlberg plays in “Spenser Confidential.” “And I’ve noticed every single time you get your face pushed in, you come back with just a little bit more information.” That’s a pretty apt description of Spenser’s modus operandi, and one of several self-aware winks that makes this genre-bruising made-for-Netflix action vehicle a lot more fun, if not nearly as respectable, as Wahlberg’s four previous collaborations with director Peter Berg.
In those films — which include a trio of panic-attack true-story thrillers, “Lone Survivor,” “Deepwater Horizon” and “Patriots Day” — Wahlberg and Berg seemed to be reaching for some kind of awards-season legitimacy. Here, on the other hand, they’re just cutting loose, channeling the never-surrender, wisecracking spirit of vintage ’80s movies like “Die Hard” and “Lethal Weapon” where the hero takes a whippin’ and keeps on quippin’.
Conceived by author Robert B. Parker, the Spenser character first appeared on-screen around the same time as those films, via the “Spenser: For Hire” TV show. Though actor Robert Urich played him cool at the time, there’s not much connection — apart from the Boston backdrop and a sidekick named Hawk (the Winston Duke character quoted above) — between the ’80s series and this movie, which screenwriters Sean O’Keefe and Brian Helgeland have loosely based on “Wonderland,” a latter-day Spenser novel penned by crime journalist Ace Atkins (who inherited the series from Parker’s estate).
The version of Spenser that Wahlberg embodies — a former boxer and belligerent ex-cop whose righteous code of honor was a bad fit for the Boston Police Department — was stripped of his badge and sentenced to five years in prison for assaulting a crooked BPD captain (Michael Gaston). It’s a familiar cliché for such movies to show the territory-establishing fight that greets a tough guy’s arrival behind bars, but “Spenser Confidential” picks up on the day its title character is meant to be released, and it’s only then that he’s set up by a soft-spoken fellow inmate (rapper Post Malone, unnerving in a small role) and jumped by the biggest goons in his block.
Thus, Spenser reenters the free world with a shiv to the side and a cut to the face — the first scars in a collection of mementos of his colorful run-ins with disgruntled ex-colleagues, machete-wielding gang members and one very persistent German shepherd. Dodging his crazy ex-girlfriend Cissy (comedian Iliza Shlesinger), Spenser meets former boxing coach Henry (Alan Arkin, typically sardonic) at the prison gates, swearing that he plans to leave Boston and become a trucker halfway across the country. That seems like a pretty radical career change — really just an excuse to introduce a monster semi truck named Black Betty for the finale — but before he can get packed, the BPD superior he assaulted all those years earlier turns up dead in a grisly hit.
Spenser would be an obvious suspect, if whoever’s responsible hadn’t pinned the murder on another good cop. And since the police department doesn’t seem particularly motivated to solve the case, Spenser vows to investigate it himself, extracting clues the painful way: one beating at a time. Other detectives could surely proceed without needing quite so many stitches, but it’s part of Wahlberg’s hardheaded charm that he seeks out confrontation. Spenser already knows that the dead captain relied on a thug named Tracksuit Charlie (James DuMont) to do his dirty work, but he endures a mauling just to be sure. And that in turn leads him to interactions with Bokeem Woodbine and Marc Maron, both creepily off-kilter in supporting roles.
Wahlberg comes to any project with a Southie swagger and unshakeable Boston accent, which other directors have molded to their advantage (most memorably in “The Fighter”). In their most relaxed collaboration yet, Berg allows the star’s natural charisma to define the character, adapting Spenser to Wahlberg’s persona rather than the other way around. The actor’s good at playing overgrown Boy Scouts, men with a clear notion of what’s right; his strange sing-songy way of speaking somehow agrees with the way Spenser talks to dogs; and of course, fans can count on his shirt coming off, revealing the chest that launched his career all those decades ago.
Spenser lands so squarely within Wahlberg’s limited range that the movie finds room to have some fun with the genre, the way Amazon’s “Goliath” leaned into Billy Bob Thornton’s persona when covering similar ground. In both cases, there are enormous institutional conspiracies lurking beneath the surface. As it happens, Helgeland wrote one of the all-time great Boston movies in Dennis Lehane adaptation “Mystic River.” Here, he presents a far less cynical view of the city, one that suggests deep-rooted police corruption can be solved by a citizen’s arrest — when the citizen in question is an ex-cop of Spenser’s caliber.
The film even pokes fun at itself in the process, fully aware that “Spenser Confidential” isn’t meant to be taken as seriously as Wahlberg’s last few movies — and just as well, since irreverence plays well on Netflix. In one scene, staking out the mani-pedi salon his suspect uses as a front, Spenser describes the guy as an “Irish mob throwback, back when the Irish mob existed outside all those sh—ty movies.” It’s an amusing dig coming from an actor who appeared in “The Departed,” although no one would argue that Berg has made a better film. I wouldn’t hesitate to claim, however, that “Spenser Confidential” is a more entertaining watch than Scorsese’s own made-for-Netflix offering, “The Irishman.” Let’s put it this way: The two movies were made for very different audiences.