Robert B. Parker wouldn’t recognize the Boston in Spenser Confidential
My first exposure to Boston was Robert B. Parker’s hip-to-be-square gumshoe, Spenser. I remember the novels tucked into our family’s bookshelf in the ‘80s alongside other dad-fiction authors of the era like Len Deighton, Robert Ludlum, John Le Carre, and a neophyte Tom Clancy. Parker stands out on that list for choosing hard-boiled private dicking over globe-trotting Cold War spycraft, and his insider’s view of Beantown. The guy loved Boston more than Jonathan Richman does.
The talent behind Spenser Confidential is the kind that might trend for Netflix if we weren’t in a pandemic where tone deaf celebs sing “Imagine” into their iPhones. Peter Berg is at the helm with his bestie-muse Mark Wahlberg starring. I was excited for it, even though Berg-Wahlberg’s flag-waving, kinda forgettable Never Forget trilogy of Lone Survivor (meh), Deepwater Horizon (surprisingly good), and Patriot’s Day (skipped it, too close to home for me) made me joke that their next movie would just be called Current Events. Instead we got Mile 22, a ripoff of The Raid that’s worth seeing if only for Wahlberg’s deeply bizarre, Cage-esque turn as an autistic black ops team leader with serious rage issues. Spenser and Boston seem like a good fit for Wahlberg, and a welcome respite from his attempts at playing Texans. Looking at you, Lone Survivor and Transformers: Age of Extinction!
Spenser’s Boston, as seen in Parker’s novels, the TV series Spenser: For Hire, and its spin-off A Man Called Hawk, was a gritty and desperate place that couldn’t have predicted craft breweries in Dorchester and lattes in Southie. Parker built Spenser who’s always remained mononymous, from the same hard-boiled, smartass mold as Philip Marlowe.
A Korean War vet, fired police officer, and Golden Gloves boxer, Spenser is also a bookworm who loves cooking and maintains a casually monogamous relationship equally defined by his Harvard-trained psychologist lady friend, Susan Silverman. He’s a very Boston dichotomy of machismo and intellectual curiosity. Rumor has it that Robert Urich’s casting in Spenser: For Hire dissatisfied Parker. He thought Urich was too pretty and young, and preferred Joe Mantegna, who eventually stepped into the role for a few A&E movies in the early 2000s. I’ve always pictured Urich as Spenser because other than some book spines, he was my first exposure to the character. I read the books imagining Urich’s feathered hair getting knocked around the Combat Zone.
Who knows what Parker would’ve thought of Wahlberg? He’s not too young but he reads more mouthy than wise. He looks more comfortable hitting Post Malone with a book than flipping through its pages. Spenser Confidential finds some inmates interrupting our hero’s final day at the Walpole prison library. They bow up to warn him to get the hell outta Boston after he gets the hell outta prison. Everybody hates Spenser, which is fine with him. After losing his Boston PD badge and going to jail for beating up a corrupt cop, he just wants to get his CDL, move to Arizona, and start over with his dog riding shotgun. When that corrupt cop ends up dead, he finds himself trying to clear his name and unravel a conspiracy that goes up to the highest levels.
The movie reimagines the series considerably. It transforms smooth criminal and boxing frenemy Hawk (Duke) into an ex-con, wannabe MMA fighter. Duke runs with the role, creating a fun, weird Hawk more in keeping with time. Psychologist Susan Silverman is tossed out in favor of Cissy (Schlesinger), Spenser’s on again-off again dog groomer girlfriend. Schlesinger seems like she’s doing a mash-up impression of Amy Ryan in Gone Baby Gone and Bill Burr. Personally, I’ve never wanted to see a blonde Bill Burr hump Mark Wahlberg in a Comm Ave bathroom but your mileage may vary. There’s a ton of changes, like Spenser’s dog going from pointer to beagle, but that’s fandom nitpickery.
Spenser Confidential’s tone is most of what’s wrong. It’s played as a wacky and broad romp and when the jokes land, it’s kind of fun. Most of the time they don’t. Alan Arkin is funny but he could sit with a carrot and say, “What do you want? I’m eating a carrot,” and that’d be hilarious. It’s a lame, predictable detective story dressed up as Boston accent porn.
Berg repeatedly reminds the viewer not to take it all too seriously. He blasts the screen with location changes, like “PRISON” and, no shit, a helicopter shot into a wharfside celebratory dinner as “LOBSTAH.” Parker’s Spenser was remarkable for being modern while calling back to what makes American hard-boiled fiction great and a love of a city that ain’t easy to love. Even if Berg wants to have fun with that, Spenser Confidential feels about as hard-boiled and local as a tourist taking a selfie in front of the Hard Rock Cafe near Faneuil Hall.