Orange Thursday: Spenser Confidential (2020) and The Helicopter Spies (1968)

Every Thursday, TMINE reviews two movies, carefully avoiding infringing a former mobile phone company’s trademarked marketing gimmick

As we continue to enjoy life after The Event and remain indoors, movies and TV can continue to provide us with entertainment on streaming services or those old-fashioned things called DVDs and Blu-Rays (remember to remain indoors when ordering them).

So no reviews of movies at cinemas this week for Orange Thursday, but we do have one brand new movie and one really old movie to talk about. Both of them have a TV connection, too.

First in the line-up is Spenser Confidential (2020), a Netflix original directed by Peter Berg, written by Sean O’Keefe and Brian Helgeland, and starring Mark Walhberg and Winston Duke. It’s based on Wonderland, one of the Ace Atkins novels that uses Robert B Parker’s characters from his Spenser novels. You may remember the previous adaptations of Parker’s work: 80s US TV show Spenser For Hire starring Robert Urich and Avery Brooks and the A&E movies starring Joe Mantegna.

This isn’t very much like them.

Second in our double-bill is The Helicopter Spies (1968). Remember when spies were all the rage, particularly The Man From UNCLE, but no one had video recorders and everyone still had black and white TVs? Well, network TV execs had the cunning plan of releasing two-part episodes of The Man From UNCLE as fully fledged colour movies with extra, more adult content for people to enjoy.

And we’ll be looking at the The Helicopter Spies, the seventh of the movies, which was based on the fourth season two-parter The Prince of Darkness Afffair. If you grew up in the 80s, you’ll have probably seen it about 75 times from its frequent 6pm-7pm BBC2 repeats, so you may not need a rewatch.

See you after the ads and the trailers.

Spenser Confidential

Spenser Confidential (2020)

Plot

Disgraced former Boston police officer Spenser is released from a five-year prison sentence for intervening in a domestic dispute and assaulting his captain John Boylan.

On the day of Spenser’s release, Boylan and another officer are murdered. Spenser teams up with his no-nonsense new roommate, Hawk, to investigate and take down the guilty parties. Spenser examines the evidence in an attempt to piece together the series of events involving the murderers, drug traffickers, and corrupt police officers.

TMINE verdict

Hard-boiled PI eyes used to be all the rage, but now, despite a recent revival of the genre on TV, we’re down to Magnum PI and Stumptown. Maybe it’s not that surprising, therefore, that Spenser Confidential isn’t the most faithful adaptation of the Spenser books but is instead yet another Peter Berg vehicle for Mark Wahlberg that is as competent yet clueless as predecessor Mile 22.

While certain elements of the books have been retained, such as Spenser’s skills at boxing and the fact he has a tough black partner called Hawk (Winston Duke), largely this is a new set up with an origin story that has a beginning, middle and end, with mileage for sequels in the epilogue.

And it’s an odd mishmash. Some of the time, it wants to be a proper PI drama, with Wahlberg patrolling blue-collar Boston, going to crime scenes, questioning people and generally trying to work out who killed the man everyone thinks he killed. There’s bad blood with all the cops who think he’s done it, there’s corruption in high places, his best pal Alan Arkin is threatened and more.

Sometimes it does this well, sometimes it doesn’t.

Then every so often, he’ll get into a fight and it’s played for laughs, with Wahlberg getting constant beatings in a comedy-stylee.

Then there’ll be sports intermissions, where we’re down the gym, learning about boxing and MMA. This advances the plot very little and is characterisation we don’t usually need, particularly in Duke’s case.

Mile 23

More promisingly, we have Wahlberg’s comedy girlfriend (stand-up comic Iliza Shlesinger) who does at least make the movie a bit more entertaining than it is usually is, since a lot of the time it’s trying to do what Mile 22 did – try to convince you Wahlberg is an intellectual without really knowing what an intellectual is. Marc Maron does similarly, as the world’s worst hard-bitten journalist, constantly saying he needs more proof in an age of #FakeNews. Even Arkin helps out here, too. But those comedic moments are islands in something that aspires to be a proper gumshoe flick.

The shootouts and car chases when they do come are competent and somewhat thrilling, but not especially so. And again, they’re comedic but not so much you actually laugh.

All of which makes this Spenser a pale shadow of his predecessors – just another set of clothes for Wahlberg to wear, rather than a properly realised character.

TMINE rating

Rating: 2 out of 5.

The Helicopter Spies (1968)

Available on Amazon

Plot

UNCLE agents Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin witness the aerial destruction wrought on an African village by Dr Kharmusi using his newly developed “thermal prism”.

UNCLE then seeks out notorious safe cracker (and former thermal prism researcher himself) Luther Sebastian to help them obtain the device from Dr Kharmusi. Sebastian is on an island among a religious group called “The Third Way”, a mystical organisation with disciples having – except for Sebastian – platinum white hair and all having a belief that when the “Old Man” in their group finally speaks after 20 years of silence The Third Way will have dominion over the world.

Wanted in nearly two dozen countries Sebastian agrees to leave the island and help UNCLE in return for world-wide immunity from prosecution.

TMINE verdict

Largely, people growing up watching the UNCLE movies in the UK in the 80s have a distorted view of what The Man From UNCLE TV series was like. While the first season is a rather enjoyable affair that is largely played straight, later seasons veered towards outright spoof, depending on the showrunner. And it’s frequently unwatchable as a result.

The movies, however, are generally good, quite thrilling affairs, particularly the first (To Trap A Spy). Largely, that’s because additional material was filmed, the story adapted and so on.

The Helicopter Spies is perhaps the most faithful adaptation of its source material of all the UNCLE movies – and therefore probably its worst. Indeed, it feels very much like a two-parter, with two stories stuck together and a big revelation at the end of the first part that changes everything.

There is some new material, such as Sebastian’s wife’s string of naked lovers, but The Helicopter Spies – which has one scene involving a helicopter, so not really living up to its name there – doesn’t so much rattle along as trundle.

The say bored affair

There’s a lot of too-ing and fro-ing between exotic locations that are really just backlots in Los Angeles. Want to do a Greek island? Fine. We’ll make you some plaster pillars and stick some unconvincing make-up on John Carradine.

UNCLE‘s 60s style US TV focus on building up the guest characters to the almost complete exclusion of the main characters means that you really have to be a fan of the TV series to want to sit through the building up the villain – and to know the movie’s background, as naturally there’s no real explanation of UNCLE et al built in.

In the age of #MeToo, there’s some ‘problematic’ scenes that make it a little harder to watch than other UNCLE episodes – “then why don’t you kill me?” asks one woman to the baddie. “We can discuss that in private later,” he replies.

All of which is a bit disappointing, since the rest of the movies are vastly better. And probably have more helicopters in them.

There are certain sparks of interest through and Vaughn, McCallum and Carroll remain the stalwart foundations that keep everything together. But if you’re going to watch one Man From UNCLE movie, this ain’t it.

TMINE rating

Rating: 2 out of 5.
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