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CONTRABAND (2012) review

April 23, 2012

written by: Aaron Guzikowski
produced by: Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Baltasar Kormákur, Stephen Levinson & Mark Wahlberg
directed by: Baltasar Kormákur
rating: R (for violence, pervasive language and brief drug use)
runtime: 110 min.
U.S. release date: January 13, 2011
What do I remember most from Mark Wahlberg’s latest blue-collar tough guy movie? Probably his face, specifically his brow. In all his movies, the actor’s most prominent tool is front and center in just about every scene – always projecting a variation of extreme concern, indignant fury, or just thoroughly annoyed. Whether he’s in an action-comedy (“The Other Guys“), a certifiable dud (“The Happening”) or an Oscar-winning Best Picture (“The Departed”), this approach seems to be his most consistent asset. Wahlberg is given many opportunities to give his asset a workout in the new thriller “Contraband”, showcasing several intense “What did you just say to me?” and “You’re messing with my family? Really?” glares. In other words, we’re not seeing him stretch his acting chops, by any means. The movie tries to invoke the hard-boiled heist films of the 70s, yet can’t seem to shake repeated examples of logic-defying stupidity. The end result isn’t quite the action thriller Wahlberg fans may be expecting, but there is at least a competent silly escapism to it all. Whether or not its going for that is another thing entirely.
After years as the best smuggler in the States, Chris Faraday (Mark Wahlberg) was has gone legit now for some time, embracing domestic bliss with his wife, Kate (Kate Beckinsale) and their two boys in New Orleans. But that can’t last, can it? No. Because there’s that “cool” poster of a glaring Wahlberg showing us his smuggling belt. So, we know he’ll get sucked back in to doing what he does best, but what’s it going to take to pull him from his family? Why, his family, of course.
It turns out Kate’s dingbat little brother, Andy (Caleb Landry Jones, last seen as Banshee in “X-Men: First Class“) thought that he could take a stab at smuggling too. Unfortunately for him, such illegal endeavors involves methodical planning, which requires a brain. When Andy is forced to dump a shipment of coke during a raid on an attempted run, he’s left with a hefty debt to local gangster, Tim Briggs (a weasely, Giovanni Ribisi) who knew Chris back in the day. Word gets out that Briggs is threatening to kill Andy as well as Chris’ family, if the scumbag doesn’t recoup his losses. Pressured by Kate, Chris has to get his old crew together, which includes wingman Sebastian (Ben Foster, in yet another squirrely role) and their loyal associate, Danny (Lukas Haas) to run contraband in order to pay off Briggs. The goal is to move $10 million in counterfeit currency from Panama back to the Big Easy, without alerting the surly Captain (J.K. Simmons) of the cargo ship.
It should go down without a hitch, but it wouldn’t be a thriller if everything went smoothly. Everything starts to unravel when Sebastian hangs back home to watch over Kate as Briggs petulant temper flares, finding Chris and company dealing with an unpredictable drug lord (Diego Luna) in Panama. With his wife and kids vulnerable and a seemingly fool-proof plan gone awry, Chris must keep his head in the game and stay on the move to make things right.
It sounds like the movie could be a cool throwback to those pulp novels by Donald E. Westlake, but it’s nothing that exciting or absorbing. In fact, it’s a remake of an Icelandic film from 2009 called “Reykjavik-Rotterdam”, which starred and was co-produced by “Contraband” director Baltasar Kormákur. I’ll bet that film had a more realistic feel to it than this one does, hopefully consisting of believable supporting characters, instead of the cartoonish cast that fills out this movie. Ribisi and Foster are certainly fun to watch here, but their characters definitely would’ve had more impact if first-time screenwriter Aaron Guzikowski gave them something less stereotypical to work with. Regardless of what could’ve been done with the screenplay, there may have been no escaping the hammy performances by these two actors.
As for Wahlberg? As we’ve come to expect in this type of movie, he’s playing Wahlberg. The charismatic swagger and the determined albeit frustrated attitude is intact, with little room for anything else. Seeing him and Beckinsale as husband and wife is laughable. The chemistry just isn’t there, instead they come across more like ex-con and parole officer. At least the always reliable Simmons is there to ground the movie with a lived-in character, complete with some fun comic bits – we even get to see him in his skivvies!
There’s nothing in Kormakur’s zooming, jittery camerawork that makes “Contraband” stand out. It’s a film that works for what it is, where the bad guys act shifty and have toothpicks hanging out of their mouths, but at the end of the day all we’re left with is Wahlberg’s brow. That being said, it’s better than most of the January releases we usually see, but not any better than it actually could be.
RATING: **1/2

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