The new Mark Wahlberg vehicle, Contraband, could be described as the anti-heist film, because rather then stealing, they are smuggling. Instead, the film retains enough conventions of the genre to feel very much like a heist film indeed, and besides including some relatively ingenious smuggling tricks, fails to do much else to explore or broaden the genre. Chris Farraday (Wahlberg) is a retired shipping container smuggler cajoled into the familiar “one last job” trope after his brother-in-law Andy (Caleb Landry Jones) botches a drug hand off. Of course, now Chris has a wife and kids, and the debt collectors are threatening them. This ends up including not only potential violence at home, but a Panamanian escapade as well.
Many may not be aware that Contraband is yet another remake of a Nordic hit, the 2008 Icelandic film Reykjavík-Rotterdam, which starred Contraband director Baltasar Kormákur. I have not seen Reykjavík-Rotterdam, but the threadbare plot description makes it seem like a passing resemblance to Contraband at best. My interest in seeing the original has actually increased since seeing the remake, if only because Kormákur was not the director. Contraband features some of the oddest and most jarring direction I have ever seen. While I am not a fan of the Greengrass shaky cam, Kormákur takes this hand-held technique down a very slippery-slope through most of the film, attempting to pass it off as “gritty” filmmaking. Instead, he comes off as a filmmaker who has just discovered digital auto focus for the first time. There are sections of this film in which there is a cut or zoom-in to a close-up every 10 seconds. It was incredibly distracting, and completely took me out of the scene several times.
The script also leaves its characters criminally underdeveloped. Chris’ entire motivation is his family, with an occasional nod to his cowboy smuggling days. His wife, Kate (Kate Beckinsale) is given nothing to do except scream, cry, and hug her children dearly. However, the character that suffers most is Chris’ best friend and confidant Sebastian (Ben Foster), whose motivations for doing anything are barely touched upon, though I did like Foster’s performance. By far the two best characters in the film are crime boss Tim Briggs (Giovanni Ribisi), who, despite a little overacting, may be the only actor to take advantage of the New Orleans setting and do something interesting with it, and Danny (Lukas Haas) who provides much of the comic relief in the Panama sequence. Of special note: this film, the first 2012 release I have seen, is already far in the lead when it comes to wasting talent and underusing the immense skills of JK Simmons as the ship Captain. Simmons is perfect for the role, but the film never lets him cut loose, which is a shame. The plot is very straightforward, and sadly most of the “twists” are telegraphed or laid out for the audience before any suspense can be built. Only the natural, muscled charm of Wahlberg and the film’s fast pace keep this one afloat.
Contraband opens in Philly-area theaters today.