Contraband – Review (2)


A stripped-down “Takers” without any “Heat”

I’m convinced there are two Mark Wahlbergs on this planet. There’s the Mark Wahlberg who has shown his potential with his collaborations with director David O. Russell – I Heart Huckabees to be specific – plus being able to upstage comics Steve Carell and Tina Fey with his supporting role in Date Night. Then there’s the Mark Wahlberg that cashes in on his success by appearing in films like Max Payne and The Happening. Can’t fault a guy for wanting to make a living as something other than an underwear model and leader of the “Funky Bunch”. However his latest film, Contraband, while it may look good as a two-minute trailer, it doesn’t carry nearly enough thrills or excitement to compensate for its 110-minute run time.

The plot revolves around the need to smuggle $750,000 worth of counterfeit bills from Panama City to New Orleans. Mark Wahlberg plays experienced smuggler Chris Farraday. Chris has put his smuggling days behind him to settle down with a family and his own legit small business. Unfortunately for him, his lovely wife (Kate Beckinsale) has a turnip-brained kid brother who has put the entire family in danger due to a botched smuggling operation. So it’s up to Chris to do “one last job.” He relies on best friend Sebastian (Ben Foster) to look after his family while he boards a freighter bound to Panama to make things square with Tim Briggs (Giovanni Ribisi), the New Orleans hood whose intimidation stems from having colorful tattoos and a crackling voice, instead of an imposing presence. At no point does Wahlberg’s character feel the least bit threatened by Briggs. The same can’t be said for Beckingsale. Feeling shoehorned into the role of the dutiful wife who is well aware of her husband’s smuggling ways, she goes from dutiful to frightful to being a poorly conceived plot device in the last act.

What works against Contraband the most is its halfhearted structure – everything is too coincidental. Aside from Wahlberg’s introduction, where we get an understanding of his character without much exposition needed, and Ribisi’s character – inspired by several prison documentaries including one on Danny Trejo – the rest of the cast appears to go through the motions. The screenplay includes surprises that fail to surprise and more than a few plot holes. And the ending is too happy-go-lucky for a flick that aims to achieve the same atmospheric tones as crime thrillers set in Boston or New York.

Still, to be fair, the movie accomplishes what it sets out to do for a January release. It is absurd and enjoyable at times. And it is because of its absurdness that it becomes enjoyable. That may sound like a cop out, but it’s the truth.

Originally an Icelandic film titled Reykjavik-Rotterdam, Contraband doesn’t seem to require the East European setting unlike the recent Girl with the Dragon Tattoo adaptation. Baltasar Kormakur, who produced and starred in the original, serves as director. While he may have had a strong sense of what the movie was he couldn’t portray that on screen. He utilizes aerial shots way more than necessary to the point it’s easy to mistake the film for an episode of CSI: Bourbon Street. Kormakur’s action sequences lack impression or threat of danger. The overall sense of urgency tends to be absent until a mitigating circumstance springs up reminding everyone what’s at stake. Face it: Contraband borrows much from the crime film genre playbook of bad clichés and alters a few facets to suit the job at hand.

Working in a producing capacity, Mark Wahlberg definitely got the type of movie he wanted. He assembled some good working actors – J.K. Simmons chews the scenery as the captain of the freighter – for what looked to be an intriguing thriller about running contraband. The movie also continues to prove that Wahlberg seems to be stuck in neutral when it comes to heroics, emblematic of the ‘80s action icon with nary the gravitas. Ben Foster’s screen time is limited but his character probably has the greatest arc. And Giovanni Ribisi has come a long way from when I first noticed him – on an episode of The X-Files back in 1995. His Tim Briggs character is white trash and not the least bit intimidating, but he easily usurps the scenes he shares with Wahlberg.

Contraband is a crime genre filler that’s easy to forget after a single viewing. But that won’t matter to those viewers wanting to see something beyond holiday holdovers and Oscar hopefuls. If Takers was a poor man’s Heat, then Contraband is a poorer man’s Takers. Sadly, the title would have been better served for a mockumentary about an ‘80s cover band whose life revolves around that Nintendo game Contra. Imagine the possibilities.

Director: Baltasar Kormakur
Notable Cast: Mark Wahlberg, Kate Beckinsale, Giovanni Ribisi, Ben Foster, J.K. Simmons, Lukas Haas, Diego Luna, Caleb Landry Jones
Writer(s): Aaron Guzikowski, based on Reykjavik-Rotterdam by Arnaldur Indrioason and Oskar Jonasson

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