Contraband (United States/United Kingdom, 2012)January 12, 2012
Contraband is the kind of thriller that offers just enough in the way of effective elements to assemble a two-minute trailer. When it comes to a 110-minute feature, however, the sketchiness of the plotting and the director's lack of sure-handedness sink the project. By their very nature, heist-oriented thrillers are intended to be erected upon a bedrock of contrivances, but a skilled director can obfuscate this reality and make the whole thing seem like one long, fun ride. Sadly, in the case of Contraband, the seams show. Either as a result of poor writing or sloppy editing, glaring plot holes are never plugged. The film's structure is haphazard, the energy level is low, the surprises are few, and the ending is far too clean for such a messy motion picture. In short, this is pretty much what we have come to expect of movies released in January (at least those that are not Oscar-hopeful holdovers from the previous year).
Contraband is remake of the Icelandic film Reykjavik-Rotterdam. This movie's director, Baltasar Kormakur, served as both producer and lead actor in the original, so there's a solid connection. While Kormakur brings a sense of offbeat humor to the proceedings, his handling of action sequences is suspect (they lack tension) and the story is frustratingly driven by characters doing moronic and short-sighted things. The screenplay could be smart, but it isn't. The pace is uneven; only on rare occasions is there a sense of urgency, and the "nick of time" ending seems like what it is: a bad cliché.
As Chris Farraday, Mark Wahlberg adopts his usual low-key persona. Unlike Matt Damon, who can ratchet it up for an action role, Wahlberg appears capable of only one level. Guided by a strong director, Wahlberg has shown impressive acting chops, but Kormakur is not the kind of filmmaker who can cull the best from his leading man. As a result, it's difficult to warm up to Chris, even though his backstory is one of redemption. He's a former smuggler who, for the sake of his loving wife, Kate (Kate Beckinsale), and two children, has gone straight. Despite constant temptations to return to a life of crime, he stays on the right side of the law - until circumstances dictate that he backslide.
Chris' brother-in-law, Andy (Caleb Landry Jones), who has remained in Chris' old business, dumps a load of drugs when his ship is boarded following an anonymous tip. The drug dealer, Tim Briggs (Giovanni Ribisi), wants his money and, if he can't get it from Andy, he'll move onto Chris and Kate, extracting the payment in either dollars or blood. With the help of his best buddy, Sebastian (Ben Foster), Chris arranges to reunite his old crew and head to Panama to pick up a load of counterfeit $20s. But the transaction is not without problems and, back home in New Orleans, things start getting ugly as Briggs begins a campaign of intimidation.
Putting aside how little Wahlberg brings to Contraband, as least the size of his role fits an actor of his high profile. Kate Beckinsale, on the other hand, is shoehorned into a part that defines the term "underused." Like many actresses of a certain age, Beckinsale is finding it difficult to capture work of substance, so she appears in productions like this to pay the bills. She has little to do here that's interesting: she plays the dutiful wife, she is harassed by the drug dealer, and she is transformed into a plot device during the final act. Meanwhile, Giovanni Ribisi seems to be enjoying himself playing the bad guy. I never admired Ribisi much in the early portion of his career but, now that he has started taking more offbeat and challenging roles, he has reversed my opinion. He's easily the most enjoyable character in Contraband. (Although Diego Luna's wacko art-obsessed Panamanian gangster comes in a close second.)
Contraband delivers what it promises... barely. It is a story about reformed criminals being forced back into the game, friction with drug dealers, smuggling, and revenge, with the requisite betrayal thrown in. It isn't made with enough style or energy, however, to be consistently engaging and the various comeuppances lack the full-bodied satisfaction one hopes for when a bad guy goes down in something like this. The film is a little below mediocre but par for the course at this time of the year. It's a forgettable time-waster that will be seen more because of a lack of viable options at the multiplex than because it warrants an investment of anyone's time or money.
Contraband (United States/United Kingdom, 2012)
Cast: Mark Wahlberg, Kate Beckinsale, Giovanni Ribisi, Ben Foster, J.K. Simmons, Lukas Haas, Diego Luna, Caleb Landry Jones
Screenplay: Aaron Guzikowski, based on Reykjavik-Rotterdam by Arnaldur Indrioason and Oskar Jonasson
Cinematography: Barry Ackroyd
Music: Clinton Shorter
U.S. Distributor: Universal Pictures