A film review by Craig J. Koban

January 16, 2012


2012, R, 110 mins.


Chris: Mark Wahlberg / Kate: Kate Beckinsale / Tim: Giovanni Ribisi / Sebastian: Ben Foster / Captain: J.K. Simmons / Gonzalo: Diego Luna / Danny Raymer: Lukas Haas

Directed by Baltasar Kormakur / Written by Aaron Guzikowski, based on the film “Reykjavik-Rotterdam.”

There are actually three definitions of ‘contraband’: 

1.  Goods that are illegal to possess or trade. 

2.  The name of a new action/thriller remake of a 2009 Icelandic film REYKIJAVIK ROTTERDAM. 

3.  The name of a new Mark Wahlberg-starring film where he goes through his obligatory performance motions in a story that yet again retreads one of the oldest movie formulas in the books – the former career criminal, now legit, that is forced to go back for “one last job” because of unforeseen events beyond his control. 

As far as January releases go – which has never been a strong and fertile ground for serious, grade-A films – CONTRABAND at least never apologizes for its B-grade impulses.  It’s a film that unapologetically engages in wanton vehicular pandemonium, blood curdling violence and fisticuffs, teeth-clenched standoffs, dastardly moustache-swirling villains, and themes of trust, betrayal, and revenge.  If you're a male viewer...there's a lot to like here.  

I will say that CONTRABAND – being largely coarse and unsophisticated – is never boring or dull.  I guess that my real problem with it is that all its propulsive energy is kind of wasted on an underlining storyline that wallows in genre clichés and conventions.  Worse yet is that the plotting has too many glaring holes in logic and its director, Baltasar Kormakur, does not seem to have an assured grasp of the visual style he wants to employ.  More often than not, the film relies on too many hyper stylized camera and editorial tricks, which results in CONTRABAND’s distracting aesthetic suffocating any semblance of a consequential caper story to come through. 

As far as starring vehicles go, Mark Wahlberg is certainly better than this material, but he still demonstrates time and time again his willingness to allow himself to wallow in roles that don’t require more of him, other than to pout, brood, taunt, and flex his biceps a lot.  He’s in pure paycheck-grabbing auto-pilot mode here as Chris Farraday, a one-time smuggler extraordinaire that has gone legit for the soul reason of wanting to keep his wife, Kate (Kate Beckinsale) and their two children safe and secure.  He has been tempted many times to go back to his old life, but he unwaveringly stays on the honorable path.  That is, of course, until his brother-in-law, Andy (Caleb Landry Jones) makes a catastrophic error that requires Chris back into a life of crime. 

It seems that Andy made a very, very bad decision with dumping a drug lord’s cargo when his ship is boarded by the Feds.  The dealer, Tim Briggs (Giovanni Ribisi, bearded, tattooed, and cartoonishly mannered and monstrously over-the-top) wants his money for the cargo and if he does not get it he will not only murder Andy, but he'll eventually move in on Chris and his family.  Realizing that he has no choice, Chris begrudgingly decides to help the pathetically in-over-his-head Andy.  With the assistance of his friend, Sebastian (Ben Foster), Chris decides to reunite his own Danny Ocean-ian heist crew for a complex and dangerous final score.  It involves them all smuggling loads of counterfeit $100 bills from Panama to a freighter ship and then back to New Orleans without being detected.  



When this plan goes unexpectedly and horribly afoul, Chris and his crew are coerced into working with a Panamanian sociopath and art-loving nut job (a delightfully unhinged Diego Luna) into robbing an armored car in broad daylight, which predictably leads to even more dangerous complications.  Meanwhile, back on the home front, Briggs grows increasingly impatient with the setbacks of Chris’ crew for securing proper payment back for him, and he begins to take out his frustrations on Kate and her kids. 

Isn’t it kind of amusingly ironic that the female action star of the UNDERWORLD films is woefully delegated to the one-note and disposable wounded-wife-in-danger role in CONTRABAND?  The only purpose for Beckinsale’s participation here – outside of getting paid and being a beautiful face to place amidst all of this film's grizzled manhood – is for her to facilitate a required plot device whereby Briggs can constantly threaten her and provide the film with some mechanically derived suspense.  Beckinsale at least tries to infuse in her underwritten role a tough exterior and raw edge, but she never emerges as anything more than a victim here.  Consider, if you will, how much more compelling CONTRABAND could have been if, say, Wahlberg and Beckinsale reversed roles and it was the husband that was abused, mistreated, and needed saving from the wife. 

CONTRABAND is also sloppily and lazily written when it comes to the heist itself (these types of genre films are only as good as the inherent heist presented within them) and revolves around far too many ridiculous contrivances, half-backed plot twists, and a series of narrative coincidences that frankly made my head hurt.  I was left asking too many questions about the logic of Chris’ plan too:  Why would he bring his hapless and untrustworthy brother-in-law along for the ride on this caper?  Andy is a bumbling buffoon when it comes to smuggling, so wouldn’t he be a detriment to Chris’ plan?  Furthermore, how in the world could Chris plausibly pull off such an elaborate smuggling operation with his limited time offshore before his ship heads back home?  In the film they conveniently have enough time to try to secure the counterfeit loot, find out that it's tainted, and then try to secure new bills, which eventually leads them to participating in an armored car robbery.  Then there’s the issue of getting the money on board the ship without any detection (they hide it in an empty space behind a wall).  Not even Ethan Hunt’s Impossible Mission Force could realistically pull off this caper. 

The film’s climax is a real eye-rolling groaner as well, which involves Chris hatching an unbelievably resourceful scheme to not only rid the world of Briggs and save his family, but also to set up his other adversary, the cargo ship’s unscrupulous captain (played juicily by J,K. Simmons) that has a history with him.  It’s a miracle that Chris has the available time and resources to enact such a profound act of multiple comeuppance, which requires certain adversaries to be in just the right precise spots at just the right precise time for it to be carried off successfully.  Lastly, there is the business of a $150 million dollar Jackson Pollock canvas in the back of a van that…well…never mind. 

CONTRABAND maintains a solid pacing and an eagerness to be a hard-edged, R-rated thriller that's refreshing seeing as so many other genre examples are stripped to a watered-down PG-13.  Yet, the inherent ridiculousness of the underlining heist caper, the plot riddled with obligatory machinations and would-be shocking twists, and the genuine lack of directorial confidence from Kormakur hurts the film overall (the armored car robbery sequence in particular is so staccato in its editing that making visual sense of it all is borderline eye-straining).  That, and if you’ve seen countless one guy forced to go bad again to save his family from a sadistic drug lord thrillers before then there's really no requirement for you to see CONTRABAND, unless you want your theater admission money smuggled right out of your wallet.

  H O M E