Once upon a time, Chris Farraday (Mark Wahlberg) was one of the best smugglers in the game. They called him Houdini, and he was the best.
Then, he got married to the lovely Kate (Kate Beckinsale) and fathered a couple of lovely boys. He’s got a new business, a house on the outskirts of New Orleans, and he’s trying to build a life on the straight and narrow while leaving his criminal days behind him.
Then, his wife’s little brother Andy (Caleb Landry Jones) ran into some trouble while making a smuggling run and he had to dump a few hundred thousand dollars’ worth of drugs meant to go to the sketchy-looking Tim Briggs (Giovanni Ribisi).
Andy is now in a world of trouble, and if he doesn’t get the money somehow… well, he’s going to find himself in a world of hurt. Hence, Chris has to get back into the game while hoping against hope he can get the counterfeit money into America without it being discovered and before Briggs gets his hands on the lovely Kate. Fortunately, Sebastian (Ben Foster) has the connections and Chris has the skills necessary to pay the bills.
Contraband‘s cast, then, is probably the strength of this film. Mark Wahlberg is still an effective leading man in action movies, even if he is getting up a bit in years. He’s charming enough and looks tough, but not too tough. He’s in shape, but he’s not a muscle head. He doesn’t have to do a ton of emoting or anything, but his few scenes that require acting rather than reciting plans. It helps that he’s funny, and the script gives him some good jokes.
Giovanni Ribisi is a great bad guy, thanks in no small part to the weird, fun things he does with his voice. Between his drugged-out Moburg in The Rum Diary and his unique Southern gravel-drawl in this movie, he’s proving himself to have incredible range in his vocal performances. It’s distinctive, and that (plus his goatee and muttonchops) make him a memorable villain. The other characters, especially those in Farraday’s assembled crew, are also pretty fun.
The biggest problem with Contraband is that it’s a bit too long. That’s a common issue with movies these days, of course, but Contraband amps that up by working a little too hard to make everyone, from Farraday to Sebastian to even Briggs, have a good side as well as a bad side.
For some, the good is significantly heavier than the bad; for others, the bad outweighs the good. In the end, Contraband has villainous villains, but it has to work very hard to push the non-Giovanni Ribisi villain into legitimate bad guy territory, and that harms the film by adding a significant coda onto the end of the movie.
It’s not a necessary coda, either. It merely serves to make the script, which should be fairly straightforward, into a bit of a mess. There are twists upon twists and turns upon turns, and numerous complications. After a certain amount of double-crosses, it stops being a surprise and starts being annoying, and Contraband crosses that line (before promptly double-crossing that line).
I wonder if the original Icelandic version, Reykjavik-Rotterdam (by Arnaldur Indrioason and Oskar Jonasson with an American adaption by Aaron Guzikowski) is as convoluted or if this has something to do with translating a movie into English or if they just wanted to squeeze in a few more action sequences.
To that end, director Baltasar Kormakur has some skill. He moves the camera in creative ways and takes things from interesting angles, but a lot of that good work is lost due to the style in which it is shot. It’s another one of those movies that obscures fight scenes with a violently shaking hand-held camera with lots of MTV editing. If you have a physically gifted star, you shouldn’t have to shoot around him as much as this movie does. The film’s most effective moments, fittingly, are those in which Farraday and his fellow conspirators have to sneak around the crowded bowels of the cargo ship under the nose of Capt. Camp (JK Simmons).
All in all, Contraband isn’t bad. It’s not smart by any stretch of the imagination, but the smuggling techniques are very clever, Mark Wahlberg is charming and capable, and the action (while nothing new) is entertaining enough. It’s nothing new, but it’s fun.
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