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Why 'Spenser Confidential' is the quintessential Netflix movie

Mark Wahlberg and Peter Berg usually make sad American hero true stories, so it's nice to see them have some fun for a change.
Credit: Netflix

ST. LOUIS — Spenser (Mark Wahlberg) has a good heart and a mean punch, but he can never get the two to merge on a healthy road. The right thing and Spencer just don't get on the same page. A former cop getting out of jail after serving five years for beating up his commanding officer, Spenser just wants to drive trucks for a living.

But when a pair of murders take place and force Spenser's hand, he easily clocks into bruiser hero mode. He teams up with a young MMA fighter named Hawk (Winston Duke), a protege to Spenser's friend and roommate, Henry (the indispensable Alan Arkin), to battle dirty cops, drug dealers, and killers.

That's the tale of the tape, folks. Now let me tell you what I think.

Peter Berg's latest, "Spenser Confidential," doesn't tread water on any new material here but then again, I never got the intention that was the true point of this experience. It doesn't help that when Berg and Wahlberg get together on a film, a sad yet courageous piece of American history is being served up, or a hyper-serious spy flick. For once, they kick their feet up here and have some fun.

The viewer should do the same with this film. This is the quintessential Netflix specimen. An easy-to-please turn-off-the-brain slice of entertainment. It's that final piece of juicy lobster that you saved from an earlier meal. You can roll over in bed on a Sunday morning, make a few clicks on the phone, and easily enjoy this movie in your hands without doing a single thing. I don't feel like a movie theater is required here, and that's a testament to Netflix's brand and Berg's built tough action thriller structure.

The aesthetic here is simple yet potent. You gather some injustice or bad cop business and toss it against an imperfect yet noble duo, and mix in some laughs and enjoyable action sequences. It all ends in a big shootout involving heavy machinery, heavier macho talk, and some messy boxing. The moral being that even flawed people know when to do the right thing, and bad people get what they deserve. All the while, it's okay to laugh after a gun battle.

Wahlberg, an underrated actor who holds his own in multiple genres, can do this role in his sleep. Spenser can throw a punch and take two, and also is the neighborhood guy who wants to avenge a person merely because they went to the Academy together or went to school together. He has "Boston Strong" tattooed on his DNA, so this is the perfect role for him. Wahlberg draws on many of his older performances, including "The Fighter" and "The Other Guys."

Duke is quickly becoming a big deal in Hollywood, starring in multiple Marvel blockbusters and the critically acclaimed box office hit, "Us." There's good reason behind the rise. He's a multi-faceted performer who seems to be having some fun up there. Hawk is a beast with a tender heart, someone we don't get to know too deeply but can easily level with. He wants to be "the Lebron James of MMA" but also takes the death of a cat as personally as a couple human being murdered. Duke knows how to mix in just enough comedy into his line delivering to keep you off balance. There's a scene with a little kid that has to do with giants that Duke just nails.

Arkin can step into any production and improve it instantly. Henry is no different than the lot of his recent roles. He's a loudmouth old man who cares about the anti-heroes too much and always has something to say at the wrong time. The eccentric who prefers the packaged hot dogs over fresh seafood. Bokeem Woodbine had a nice turn in last year's underrated "Queen and Slim," and offers up his jovial blend of charming menace here.

The breakout is Iliza Shlesinger, a comedian turned actress who plays the strong backbone in Spenser's world who knows how to put him, and anyone, in his place. She offers a good blend of strength and dark wit here in a role that she slips in pieces of her stand-up persona. The difference is you forget most of the time that she is a comic. That's the secret sauce in any crossover. Shlesinger can simply perform.

The film is based off an Ace Atkins novel, who spun the Spencer character from Robert B. Parker's series of private eye novels. Screenwriters Sean O'Keefe and Brian Hedgeland make some changes to the source material, but pack it well enough with cop drama quotables and hardened ex-con jargon that you won't notice or even mind that much.

It's nice to see Berg and Wahlberg pack away the drama fabrics and go camping in fun action comedy for a change. I wouldn't demand you to buy movie theater prices for this one, but your time will not be wasted taking it in on the couch. There's a few signature Berg touches and enough Wahlberg assertiveness to make the "Spenser Confidential" engine hot here.

I mean, where else are you going to see Duke, Wahlberg, and Arkin sit at a bus stop while staking out a criminal at a nail salon this weekend?

ST. LOUIS - Every actor has a toolbox where he or she can pull from in order to give a better performance. Certain movies require a few extra tools while others offer the performer a hands-free environment to evolve and transform.

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