Director: Baltasar Kormákur
Screenplay: Aaron Guzikowski (based on the film Reykjavik-Rotterdam by Óskar Jónasson and Arnaldur Indriðason)
Stars: Mark Wahlberg (Chris Farraday), Kate Beckinsale (Kate Farraday), Ben Foster (Sebastian Abney), Giovanni Ribisi (Tim Briggs), Lukas Haas (Danny Raymer), Caleb Landry Jones (Andy), Diego Luna (Gonzalo), J. K. Simmons (Captain Camp)
MPAA Rating: R
Year of Release: 2012
Country: U.S. / U.K. / France
ContrabandContraband is a moderately enjoyable, generally preposterous thriller of minimal ambitions that plants Mark Wahlberg in his favorite kind of leading role: playing a tough, streetwise professional with a temper who nonetheless has a tender side beneath all the bravado (see also The Italian Job, Shooter, The Fighter … hell, even The Other Guys). In this case, Wahlberg plays Chris Farraday, a former super-smuggler (his nickname was “Houdini”) who has turned his back on crime and is trying to stick to the straight and narrow for the sake of his wife Kate (Kate Beckinsale) and two young sons. Despite his best efforts, though, he is drawn back into the smuggling life when Kate’s younger brother, Andy (Caleb Landry Jones), tries and miserably fails to follow in Chris’s footsteps and winds up deep in debt to Tim Briggs (Giovanni Ribisi), a scrawny and sleazy, but imminently dangerous Cajun gangster for whom he was smuggling drugs.

Thus, the film gets to have its cake and eat it too by reveling in and celebrating the intricacies of illegal smuggling while always taking the moral high ground. Chris may be breaking the law, but he’s pressed into it against his will; plus, he’s doing it for a justifiable cause (saving his brother-in-law from a horrific gangland death) and he has certain steadfast principles that he won’t violate (he refuses to smuggle drugs even though they have the highest profit margin and, although not explicitly stated, he is never violent toward protectors of the law). Because Andy owes so much money and Chris wants to pay it off with only one job, he has to aim big, so he sets his sights on millions of dollars of counterfeit money that he plans to smuggle out of Panama to New Orleans on a huge container ship commanded by a wary, impressively mustachioed captain (J.K. Simmons) who immediately suspects that Chris is up to something. Chris works with a hastily assembled crack team of operatives on the ship, and he also has the support of his former partner Sebastian (Ben Foster) back home, who can watch over Kate and the boys while he’s gone.

As is typical with this kind of well-trod genre material, not everything goes exactly as planned and not everyone is as trustworthy as he or she seems. This means that Chris must improvise on the fly quite a bit, which at one point means helping Gonzalo (Diego Luna), the crazed Panamanian gangster from whom he is buying the counterfeit money, in the heist of an armored truck carrying a rare Jackson Pollock canvas. There are some plot mechanics at work here, but what the heist sequence really accomplishes is the opportunity for some machine-gun pyrotechnics in a film that otherwise relies entirely on cat-and-mouse trickery to engage the audience. If you don’t think about it too much, the plan to get hundreds of pounds of uncut sheets of money onto and off of a huge ship that is being watched over by both the crew and customs agents is fairly ingenious, although there are certain actions that are left off-screen because if we were to see them happening, the whole illusion might collapse.

Contraband is a remake of a 2008 Icelandic film titled Reykjavik-Rotterdam co-written and directed by Óskar Jónasson. Interestingly, the remake has been directed by Baltasar Kormákur, who played the Wahlberg role in the original even though he is known primarily as a director (he has helmed half a dozen films in the last 12 years, including the well-received thriller Jar City in 2006). Kormákur is an assured director, although he relies too heavily on tiresome faux-documentary aesthetic tics like an unsteady camera and sudden, unmotivated zooms in and out, as if the cameraman is as unsure of what is happening as the characters on-screen. He has a good sense of how to mount tension and keep it strung tight, even if this sometimes means that he goes for too much, such as an extended climax that finds Chris not just having to get the money off the ship during an unexpected customs check, but also find his wife whose fate hangs precariously in the balance.

The more the tension is racheted up, the angrier Wahlberg gets to act, and he is at his best when he’s snarling threats and engaging in acts of intense concentration. His screen presence enhances as the situation becomes more preposterous, a kind of perfect ratio that explains why Wahlberg is so boring as an actor when he’s not given enough activity on-screen; he needs to constantly be in motion to keep us engaged. In this regard it is not surprising that the various heavies in the film—Ribisi’s greasy, mush-mouthed creep and Luna’s wild-eyed, overconfident lunatic—are played by actors of significantly slighter stature and bulk, which allows Wahlberg to throw his still impressive weight around that much more. In what amounts to little more than a modern twist on the moral landscape of old westerns, intensity trumps lunacy every time.

Copyright ©2011 James Kendrick

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Overall Rating: (2.5)

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