THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan
Mark Wahlberg plans some illegal activity.
I'll admit it: my eyes rolled during the first half hour of Contraband. The film gets off to a slow start, setting up a premise that I've seen, oh, about six thousand times before. Chris Farraday (Mark Wahlberg) is a former smuggler who operated amidst the shipyards of New Orleans. He has forsaken the criminal life to settle down with wife Kate (Kate Beckinsale) and their two kids, and now runs a security system business. Kate's screw-up younger brother Andy (Caleb Landry Jones) fancies himself a badass, a la the “old” Chris, and runs drugs for a local dealer named Briggs (Giovanni Ribisi). To avoid getting busted by Customs officials, Andy dumps a load of drugs over the side of a boat. Briggs is furious and wants him to pay an extravagant amount of money to compensate for the loss. Further, he intends to come after everyone Andy cares about until the debt is paid – including Chris and his family. To bail his brother-in-law out and protect his own clan, Chris decides to do the proverbial One Last Job. Are you rolling your eyes too?
After this dusty set-up is in place, Contraband does something unexpected: it actually gets good. With the help of right-hand man Sebastian (Ben Foster), Chris assembles a crew and manipulates the system to get them all on the same ship, which is headed toward Panama. There, they will take possession of millions of dollars worth of counterfeit money. The trick involves hiding it from the stern ship's captain (played by J.K. Simmons) and sneaking it past Customs. It's not that simple, though; the story throws in a lot of complications that crank up the tension levels considerably. It starts with a snafu, when Chris visits a Panamanian crime leader and ends up having to spontaneously hatch a plan-within-the-plan. Meanwhile, Briggs is maintaining phone contact with Andy, giving him instructions that, oddly, seem designed to hinder Chris. Contraband rather intriguingly has two levels: one in which Chris tries to successfully complete his “run,” and another in which he must discover the hidden motives of those around him.
Mark Wahlberg could do this kind of role in his sleep, of course, but to his credit, he doesn't. He seems fully engaged here, and the familiar premise benefits from the intensity he brings to it. Contraband was directed by Baltasar Kormakur, who played Wahlberg's role in Reykjavik-Rotterdam, the 2008 Icelandic film on which it is based. Perhaps because he is intimately familiar with the material, Kormakur knows how to keep the pace moving and the action escalating. A sequence in which Chris has to smuggle the counterfeit cash onto the boat in a van is particularly tense. The staging of the scene is just right, so that we feel the potential for catastrophe at every turn. The manner in which things unfold at the end is also pleasing, as the story throws in a few twists you probably won't see coming.
The primary flaw of Contraband, aside from that slow first hour and Giovanni Ribisi's now-standard overacting, is a poorly developed female character. Kate is the only woman of any prominence in the movie, yet she's here mostly to get smacked around by Briggs. As with far too many films, the female is simply a plot device. Without Kate, Chris doesn't have as compelling a reason to take on One Last Job. It would have been great to see her as more of an equal to Chris. Perhaps she could have encouraged him to take the job and save her brother, rather than issuing the standard warning about the dangers of One Last Job. Maybe she could have played a role in the scheme herself. Either of these things would have made Kate a far more valuable character. As it stands, she's a stereotypical damsel in perpetual distress.
While there was certainly room for improvement, Contraband generally succeeds well at what it wants to do. It is a gritty, exciting film, with some cool action sequences and a cathartic conclusion. I'm not entirely sure I'll remember this movie two years from now, but for two hours, it kept me entertained.
( out of four)
Contraband is rated R for violence, pervasive language and brief drug use. The running time is 1 hour and 50 minutes.
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