Film Reviews

Watching Spenser Confidential With My Parents

In the days of old, the time before all the toilet paper disappeared, Netflix made an announcement that rankled the feathers of many media watchers: To help users cut through the clutter, the streaming giant would immediately begin posting region-specific top 10 most-watched movies/TV shows lists on its home page. Say goodbye to the age of Netflix overchoice and hello to the days of watching something called Spencer Confidential because apparently it’s the fourth most popular program in your country.

Good idea? Absolutely! But how do we know Netflix won’t use the lists to simply prop up its own original programming? What exact metrics are they using? We already know they now count a “view” as someone streaming at least two minutes of a program. So, is this really a list of the genuinely 10-most watched programs or 10-most started? Is there even a difference anymore? Oh, Netflix, you wiley devil. I’m on to you! Statistical shenanigans, I say. Shenanigans!

Now, however, I am quarantined in a house with my parents, both of whom are in the high-risk age range for COVID-19. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and self-preservation is far more front of mind than Netflix algorithms, and if the world’s biggest streaming service has a top 10 list I can use to find agreeable group programming right now, then I say thank you. (It’s not like there’s a box office top 10 anymore.) That’s how I ended up watching Spenser Confidential with my parents. Our entertainment preferences don’t always overlap, but at least we could all three agree to watch this together. They liked it. I…well, I just enjoyed hanging out with them for a couple of hours.

The Backstory

In the early 1970s, a Northeastern University professor named Robert B. Parker did his best to revive the detective novel, pouring a lot of his own personality and biography into a series of Boston-set adventures about a modern-day Philip Marlowe. Spenser – last name, his first name is never given – is a war veteran-turned-PI with a committed girlfriend, a tough best friend called Hawk, various elderly mentor figures, and a real nose for trouble. Oh, also, he always has a dog named Pearl, though it’s not always the same dog. (When one dies, he gets another and names it Pearl, as you do.)

The early Spenser novels proved popular enough that Parker transitioned to writing full-time and built up his own detective novel universe centered in the New England area, keeping Spenser busy as always while also devoting new books to a female PI named Sunny Randall and an LAPD-transplant named Jesse Stone. Parker’s final Spenser novel, his 40th, was published posthumously in 2011. (The author died of a heart attack in 2010.) Ace Atkins and Helen Brann have taken the mantle from there and published nine additional Spenser novels, the latest dropping last year.

To the non-readers of the world, Spenser is best known for a mid-80s TV series (Spenser for Hire) and a string of follow-up TV movies, all featuring Robert Urich as the title character. A pre-Deep Space Nine Avery Brooks even co-starred as Hawk on Spenser for Hire and in the TV movies, getting his own, short-lived spin-off A Man Called Hawk – in the process.

Several years after that, Joe Mantegna took over as Spenser in a new string of TV movies, that last of which bowed in 2001.

Given all of that rich history to draw from, Mark Wahlberg – Boston proud – and his preferred director Peter Berg (Lone Survivor, Deepwater Horizon, Mile 22) along with a freshman screenwriter (Sean O’Keefe) basically said, “Fuck it, let’s just do our own version of Spenser.” So, they took one of the Ace Atkins-penned novels – 2013’s Wonderland – and the character names as jumping-off points for something that is mostly their own creation. They did at least film in Boston, though, which Robert B. Parker likely would have appreciated.

Truthfully, I haven’t read nearly enough Spenser to really know the difference. I’m just looking for a movie to kill some time, man. My mom likes Mark Wahlberg, and my step-dad used to like the buddy comedies of old. Let’s give it a spin.

How the Movie Starts

Spenser, for reasons the viewer is not meant to understand yet, exits his cop car, storms into Captain Boylan’s (Michael Gaston) house, verbally berates him, and then drags him into the front yard for an old-fashioned ass-whooping.

Your main character, ladies and gentlemen, and we’re not even two minutes in.

Sidebar reminder: If you watch that far, though, Netflix counts two minutes as just as good as watching the whole thing, which gives this opening a real Netflix algorithm feel. One of those “our data shows viewers are 70% more likely to keep watching if you give then more questions than answers in the very first scene.” Like, for example, what did that man do to deserve that, Mark Wahlberg?

Ok, back to the movie.

A five-year time jump takes us to Spenser’s final days in prison, a period apparently spent reading up on truck driving and dodging assassination attempts since ex-cops are prime targets. His goal is to get out, go straight, and answer the call of the road, score his own big rig and finally understand the lyrics to “Convoy.” Alas, no Over the Top arm wrestling tournaments await this truck driver. In fact, no trucks whatsoever are in his immediate future. He’s not even out of prison a full day before he’s fingered as the lead suspect in the brutal murder of – you guessed it – Boylan, aka, that dude he beat up in the first scene.

Except we know Spenser didn’t do it. In one of the movie’s many surprisingly violent, but poorly-filmed action detours, we already saw Boylan jackknived off the road, pulled out of his car, and brutalized by a group of mask-wearing thugs saying things like, “You talked to the wrong people, Boylan.” Oh, also, Boylan’s daughter is listening to the whole thing since they were on the phone together right before the accident.

It was around this point in the movie I seriously questioned Netflix’s definition of “action-comedy.” Look, I’m a kid of the 80s and 90s. I’ve seen more buddy comedies than I can remember and I was weaned on a steady diet of Arnold, Sly, and Van Damme punching – or kicking, for the Muscles from Brussels – their problems away. However, I thought America’s fourth favorite Netflix program was going to have at least a little comedy. Instead, it’s giving me strong Cobra vibes, and my parents are 6 feet away. I might have picked poorly here.

Where It Starts to Pick Up

Mercifully, the buddy comedy does kick in eventually. Spenser moves in with his old boxing trainer Henry (Alan Arkin at his most Alan Arkin) but quickly realizes Henry secretly leased out his old room while he was in prison. That’s how this new version of Spenser meets this new version of Hawk (Winston Duke), an MMA hopeful. There’s some attempt at odd couple roommate humor – “What the hell is oat milk?” is old-fashioned Spenser’s reaction to Hawk’s healthy living – but the pair truly endear when they fight over the following question: is Pearl really still Spenser’s dog even if Henry and Hawk have been taking care of her for the last five years?

This, in my mom’s view, is when the film rights itself. It’s one of the immutable laws of the family movie viewing experience: cute dog trumps awkward plotting, always. I mean, look at Pearl’s droopy ears! Awwwwwwww!

Where I Started to Check Out

Spenser tells the cops – one of whom used to be his partner – he didn’t do it, and they believe him because Henry yells from the kitchen, “He was home all last night. I could hear him snoring. You can ask his roommate.” Good cops would at least ask for the name of the roommate, but that’s not the kind of guys we’re working with here. They do some standard cock measuring macho banter with Spenser before departing.

Sidebar: Speaking of “departing,” if you want a Boston-set movie about cops that also stars Mark Wahlberg AND is a lot better than Spenser Confidential, check out The Departed. Not the film Scorsese should have won for but I’m not mad at it for winning Best Picture.

Ok, back to the movie.

Or maybe not. This is supposed to be my review or my diary of what it was like to watch the movie with my parents. Instead, I’m cracking jokes, doing Joe Bob Briggs bits, and telling you what else to watch. So, let me get serious for a minute.

A Wahlberg/Berg joint – starting with Lone Survivor in 2013 up to Spenser – is usually a workmanlike ode to the working class hero or noble law enforcement soldier. That’s the creative direction they lean together, but with Spenser they try to do that while also building up Spenser, Henry, and Hawk as the comedy trio at the heart of what is clearly designed to be a series of new movies. In this initial installment, Spenser’s knack for fighting other people’s fights leads him to expose some corrupt cops, a journey that sees him battling underworld figures with colorful names (Tracksuit Larry). There’s not as much as detective works as there is Spenser throwing punches at all comers. The mystery behind both Boylan’s death and why Spenser attacked him five years earlier isn’t especially engrossing.

Lacking a truly solid story engine, Spenser needs cast chemistry to save the day, and Wahlberg, Arkin, and Duke certainly have the makings of a fun little trio. Iliza Schlesinger – playing Spenser’s remarkably aggressive ex-girlfriend – is also on hand to add some over-the-top comedy. But while everyone I just mentioned is capable of being very funny on-screen they never gel as much as you want them to here. This is because Spenser’s action scenes – all of them punch-em-ups – are more brutal than they need to be, leaving you with tonal whiplash when suddenly we’re supposed to laugh because Henry doesn’t understand how to use Skype.

That’s me and my film nerd brain, though. My parents, on the other hand, had a good time. The good guys win in the end, Pearl is oh so cute, and at one point Mark Wahlberg drives a semi-truck over a bunch of bad guys like it’s the 90s and we’re all still obsessed with monster trucks. Did we ever stop being obsessed, though? Did we?

They Want that Sequel ASAP

At the end, when our colorful gangs overhear a newscast detailing what is clearly going to be Spenser’s next big case, my stepdad asked, “I don’t understand. The movie’s over?” They’re setting up a sequel, wetold him. “How quickly can they make that?” was his hopeful response. Given the state of the world, we have no way of knowing when another Spenser movie might arrive, but the fact that such worries didn’t even occur to him says volumes. For a little under two hours, we enjoyed a mediocre movie together, and when the dog in the movie goes up his own doggy stairs we oohed and awwed because, of course, that’s just what our dog does. It’s the little things, people, in the age of quarantine.


What are you watching while quarantined? And if you are quarantined with family, friends, or otherwise, what – if anything – have you watched in the interest of solidarity that you wouldn’t have otherwise watched? Let me know in the comments.

10 comments

  1. You gotta be KIDDING ME! This was a movie version of Spencer for Hire?!?

    I never read any of the novels but watched every episode of the TV show. And LOVED it.

    This movie was okay (nowhere near great) but never once made the connection between this and the TV show.

    Spencer is supposed to be well-read and quotes literature often.

    Hawk is supposed to be as good or better a fighter than Spencer AND bit on the criminal side — sort of playing it up to and sometimes crossing over the line. AND they’re supposed to be frienamies.

    Why bother basing off an established series if they’re going to abandon everything that made the series what it was???

    I’m unimpressed.

    1. I’m not entirely sure why they decided to do a version of Spenser that has nothing to do with the books or TV show. My assumption: it’s set in Boston, and Wahlberg said:

      “Let’s do it but drop all that quoting literature shit. They tried to make me do that in The Gambler, but I got them to write it down on cue cards. Then the asshole critics turned around and said I sounded like I was reciting it phonetically. Not me, bro. I’m wicked smart. See, my version of Spenser, he is the type of guy who sometimes gets his ass kicked on purpose just to get clues. Other times, he’ll just fight because he was a boxer, like in The Fighter. As for that guy Hawk, Winston Duke is a beast. You see him Black Panther? I bet I could take him, though.”

      That’s my SNL version of Wahlberg, the Boston sketch character I like to pretend he is. In reality, he’s a multimillionaire who has various income sources and a whole cottage industry of restaurants, reality shows, and movies built around his brand. Why Spenser, however, needed to be a part of that brand…

      In truth, I don’t know what happened here. I would normally guess this is a project which predated Wahlberg and that earlier versions featured a Spenser and Hawk closer to their TV show/novel counterparts and then the big movie star machine came and dumbed it down. However, from what I saw on Wikipedia production history this was announced from the very beginning as a Wahlberg/Berg joint for Netflix. That suggests there probably never was a version of this that resembled the books/show which further suggests they probably didn’t really have a great deal of passion for the IP. It was just another franchise opportunity, from the man who helped bring us Wahlburgers.

      1. Good take! 🙂

        It’s crazy, though, right? I mean, in order for them to do this, they had to PAY the estate of the author, right?

        I’m only aware of two reasons for paying for the movie rights to a book.

        1) It’s a great story and they want to recreate it on screen, knowing great stories bring lots of viewers; or

        2) The book or series has a built-in audience who will pay dearly to see their beloved books come to life on screen.

        Neither of those work if you change the story up so bad it doesn’t resemble the original in any way, shape, or form.

        It just looks like wasted money. “Let’s pay for the rights to the Spenser series and do a movie that doesn’t require those rights at all.”

      2. I agree. It makes no obvious business sense, not that this is entirely a first. Hollywood does occasionally buy up an IP only to then completely change it in translation, and if Hollywood satires are to be believed it’s largely because none of the higher-ups ever even bother to read the books or watch the TV show or whatever it is for the IP they’re buying. Recent WTF book-to-screen translations include notoriously short Tom Cruise playing the 6’5″ tall Jack Reacher, a character described on the page as looking like an NFL linebacker ate another NFL linebacker. There’s also, going way back, the example of Forrest Gump, which is way, way different from the book.

        But I guess Spenser is more egregious. At least those other examples have parts that are similar to the source material. Spenser, nope. That’s just what Wahlberg, Berg, and a guy who used to write for video games came up with.

      3. I actually read a couple Jack Reacher books after seeing the first Reacher movie (which I liked quite a bit) and was surprised at how little it had in common. I don’t have a problem with a character change, such as casting a short Tom Cruise in a character written as a very big guy, but personalities and circumstances should be fairly similar. I saw none of that. The books, of course, were written for a much earlier era, so I understand the need to update, but again — keep what made the characters in the book interesting.

        I’d read The Firm long before Cruise did the movie and found it interesting that the first half followed the book quite closely and then they changed the last half completely. But, I didn’t mind that so much — again, because they kept the key aspects of the main characters the same.

        The recent Star Trek movies drove me crazy. It was clearly intended to capture the ST audience, but it was a bait and switch. NONE of the characters matched TOS personalities — except for the other timeline Spock. I hated that. And having it be in another timeline doesn’t make it any better. Part way through the movie, I made a conscious decision to stop thinking of it as Star Trek and just think of it as another space movie. That made it easier to sit through. ALMOST enjoyable.

  2. Interesting! And now I know why the title of your post rang a bell… Avery Brooks!!! This series was the reason why in Deep Space Nine he wasn’t allowed to be bold and with a goatee in the first seasons, to distance him from his previous work! Then, luckily, they let him go full badass in the last seasons! :–)

    1. Yeah. I understand why they’d want to make Cisco not be Hawk, but I really feel the early seasons of DS9 would have worked better with a more Hawk like personality. They could have dropped the goatee but kept the menacing swagger.

  3. I don’t watch anything with anyone, because I am practicing social distancing in my own f… home, because I have a combination of people who are out and about with “system relevant jobs” and people who belong to the risk group under the same roof. So I am desperately trying to limit a possible spread knowing that it will most likely not enough.

    Otherwise Netflix is dropping all the Studio Ghibli movies in my country, so I have been watching those, which I missed so far. But NATURALLY most of them will be in the last drop. Typical.

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