Quick, cheap and grittier than it needs to be, Mark Wahlberg’s new crime thriller ‘Contraband’ does just about what we expect from a B-grade January actioner and not a jot more. You won’t find anything new or revolutionary inside, but like a bargain-lunch Chinese buffet, there’s plenty of stuff to choose from even if most of it has been reheated to lukewarm.I didn’t go out for it much myself, but I can see how others might.
Wahlberg lacks some of the underlying humour and energy he demonstrated in films like ‘The Departed’ and ‘The Other Guys’ but he puts on his best tough guy bravado for Chris Farraday, a retired smuggler who takes the classic ‘one last job’ to bail out his family. There’s enough to enjoy in the heist set-up and the ever twisting details of the plot to satisfy fans of the genre, but those tiring of this sort of thing won’t be easily won over.
Living in Louisiana with his wife Kate (Kate Beckinsale) and their two children, Chris finds himself drawn back into the smuggling business when Kate’s brother (Caleb Landry Jones) Andy loses the package of cocaine he was carrying for local dealer Tim Briggs (Giovanni Ribisi). In order to cover this loss Chris gets his old team back together with a plan to board a container ship in Panama City and then run counterfeit money to New Orleans. The captain of the ship, played by the always wonderful J.K. Simmons, is keeping an eye on Chris and the gang, who pose as crewman to ease the job along.
When they get to Panama City, things go south almost immediately and director Kormakur introduces another wrinkle with a heist involving an armoured car, another crime lord played by Diego Luna, and an unexpected Jackson Pollack painting that provides humour when no one recognizes it as anything more than a soiled canvas. Back on the home front, Chris has left his buddy Sebastian (Ben Foster) to protect his family. Eventually, they do fall into danger and the stakes are raised as Ribisi threatens Beckinsale and the children in a way a bit too unsavoury for the Friday-night action extravaganza Contraband has become.
The best feature of Contraband is the way it improvises much of it’s race-against-the-clock tension and deftly apes typical Hollywood b-movie conceits while retaining a certain sense of whimsy. The hand-held camera action, edited with merciless style by Elisabet Ronalds, keeps the film barrelling confidently through all the obstacles while providing the heist angle with simple matinee action thrills. The actors are gamely running through the paces, but none of them steps out of their wheelhouse with the exception of Giovanni Ribisi’s bizarrely coiffed crime boss, who hits an irritating balance between Elmer Fudd and one of those hillbillies from Deliverance. Amusingly, he’s probably better suited to the role of Sebastian, but I can just imagine Ben Foster yelling ‘I’m sick and tired of wearing bad teeth and strange facial hair!’ Foster for his part continues to add lively banter and charm to the edges of B-movies, like a slightly rabid Ryan Gosling.
Contraband is directed by Baltasar Kormakur, who was incidentally the star of the moody Icelandic film Reykjavik-Rotterdam upon which this one is based. That movie was a more engrossing and plausible thriller that took its time with the development of its twists and turns and didn’t overheat the initial set-up. Another filmmaker remaking one of his successes (he starred and produced) here in the states, Kormakur takes an interesting tact that ensures that not only will the original still reign superior but that Contraband will also stand on it’s own as exactly what it is; the schlocky Hollywood b-movie daydream of an accomplished foreign picture.