Spenser (Mark Wahlberg, at his most Mark Walbergiest) is an former Boston cop who’s just finished doing a five-year stretch in Walpole — he beat the ever-loving crap out of his commanding officer, see, and to be fair the guy was a domestic abuser and wicked crooked, but the police don’t take kindly to such things even if you do wear the shield. In fact, the ex-con is persona non grata with the boys in blue. The day before he’s set to get out, Spenser (whose name is pronounced “Spen-SAHHH,” FYI) gets jumped by a bunch of Aryan Nation goons in the library; it’s an inconvenient speed bump on his way to freedom, but on the plus side, he gets to live out the fantasy of the millions of folks who want to punch Post Malone. He thinks someone on the outside was setting him up. The question is who. That’s suspicious event No. 1.
Suspicious event No. 2 is that, the same day his mentor, a boxing trainer named Henry (Alan Arkin) picks him up from prison, the same corrupt police chief who Spenser roughed up is found dead in a schoolbus depot. Guess who the prime suspect is? A younger cop is also discovered with a bullet in his brain, someone our man knew back in the day — and despite the narcotics “found” in his house, he knows this guy was one of the good ones. All Spenser wants to do is get his trucking license, move to Arizona and get the fuck out of Beantown. But you know how these things work. You get a true-blue bloodhound on the scent — badge or not badge, he’s gotta see where it leads.
Readers of Wonderland, the 2013 Spenser novel by Ace Atkins and the 41st book to feature author Robert B. Parker’s single-named hero, may be a little confused by the changes that director Peter Berg and screenwriters Brian Helgeland (L.A. Confidential, Mystic River) and Sean O’Keefe have made to the source material. Other than borrowing the main character, a few supporting players and the dogtrack of the book’s title, it’s more or less fresh pulp — an adaptation this ain’t. The tarnished white knight isn’t even a private dick anymore. But fans of the longtime crime-lit series will recognize the Spenser they know and love. He’s a little rougher then the version Robert Urich played in TV’s Spenser For Hire back in the ’80s and ’90s, and way less craggy than Joe Mategna’s take on the gumshoe for a series of Lifetime movies in the early aughts. Yet you can see peeks of Parker/Atkins’ hero out every time Wahlberg goes sniffing around crime scenes, forcefully charming informants, and cold-cocking knuckleheads.
And more importantly for some, fans of the star will recognize that he’s found a franchise-friendly character that works for him. Some of the Spenser’s characteristics have been customized to fit Wahlberg as sharply as the tailored gray suits the character digs. Not surprisingly, the Boston elements are pumped up to the extreme — not since The Fighter has the actor had the chance to indulge in so many townie-isms — and the fact that the character is a boxer lets Wahlberg show off his well-honed pugilistic skills. There’s enough of a sympathetic everyguy (watch the scenes with the younger cop’s widow) and enough of a raging asshole (every third scene in the movie) in Spenser that Wahlberg gets to play both sides when needed. There’s also a handful of scenes in which you can see this guy bump his head on the ceiling of his own cleverness and investigative chops, which allows Wahlberg to stay loose and not play him as some sort of modern Dorchester Sherlock. He’s just a man with a heart, a Massachusetts drivers’ license, a mean left hook and a code of honor.
This is the fifth movie that Wahlberg and Peter Berg have done together, after a trio of true-life he-man melodramas (Lone Survivor, Patriots Day, Deepwater Horizon) and one ill-advised trip to the Far East (Mile 22). You get why they keep working with each other. The director understands how to get a lot out of the actor without necessarily making him play against type or past his range, and the movie star knows exactly how to play the sort of salt-of-the-earth working stiffs, soldiers and scrappers that the filmmaker gravitates toward. And while Berg may be a slightly generic helmer of tough-guy stories, he’s also the kind of guy who has a genuine feel for blue-collar worlds that a lot of moviemakers couldn’t realistically gin up if there was a gun to their head. He’s not stylish, but he is functional, and knows how to stage real knockdown, drag-out fight scenes. (Better Berg than Michael Bay, we say — feel free to embroider that on a throw pillow.)
So maybe you have to put up a boilerplate classic-rock soundtrack that feels like someone just slapped a K-Tel compilation on sequences at random, the sort of climactic helicopter pull-out shot that people use when they don’t know how to end a movie and a few wonky Boston-shit-talking-by-numbers exchanges. Look what you do get: Wahlberg and Berg proving they can go light for a change. The mighty Winston Duke as Hawk, Spenser’s partner-in-crime and a calming presence when he’s not literally tossing thugs through walls. (Between this, Black Panther, Us, and the upcoming Nine Days, the Yale graduate is quickly becoming the most reliable MVP in contemporary movies.) An Alan Arkin cantankerous-old-guy role that paves the way for the Oscar winner to go full metal Arkin. Stand-up comic Iliza Schlesinger as the movie’s part-time romantic interest/full-time comic relief and a steroidal caricature of a scary Southie woman. Bokeem Woodbine doing his smiling, menacing thing. You might not pay money to see this in a theater, but you’d watch it on your couch in a second, which is why Netflix makes perfect sense for it. A coda sets up a sequel. There are worse things to look forward to.