Lots of actors have a niche they like to call home, and while it’s sometimes fun to see them stretch outside their comfort zone they often do their most relaxed and assured work with material that feels the most familiar. For Mark Wahlberg that zone is “nice guy committing criminal acts while remaining pretty damn charming.”
When he sticks to it we get fun films like Three Kings, Four Brothers, The Italian Job, Shooter and more. When he veers too widely away though we get The Happening.
Lucky for us Contraband falls into the former category of fun, lightweight films that take full advantage of Wahlberg’s physical appearance, under-utilized sense of humor and charismatic charm (that falls somewhere between a George Clooney and a Michael Shannon).
Chris Farraday (Wahlberg) is an ex-smuggler extraordinaire who’s traded the criminal life for a wife (Kate Beckinsale), two kids and small business of his own. He was once the greatest in the game, and everyone in town knows it except the police (apparently). When his wife’s younger brother Andy (Caleb Landry Jones) runs into trouble on a smuggling run the teen finds himself in debt to a diminutive, tattooed drug lord with a speech impediment named Briggs (Giovani Ribisi).
And just like Farraday is forced back into the game if he wants to protect his family’s future.
That’s right. It’s the remake of Gone In 60 Seconds you never knew you needed!
Screenwriter Aaron Guzikowski didn’t spend too much time on plot details so I’ll spend even less, but suffice it to say Farraday throws together a swarthy crew of smugglers, goes about getting himself added to a ship’s crew in the most elaborate way possible and heads to Panama where his old connections are eager and unquestionably happy to work with him again.
The goal is to make a huge score, pay off Briggs and go about their lives, but of course things go ridiculously wrong from minute one, and Farraday is forced to think fast (or not at all) in order to stay one step ahead of failure.
To say there are plot holes and contrivances bigger than Wahlberg’s entourage would be a criminal understatement. Andy is an idiot from frame one but Farraday still brings him to Panama. An intense and substantial conflict involving the police and a well-armed gang is forgotten in the time it takes the last shell casing to fall to the ground. Briggs crosses a major line that could get him arrested and out of their hair but no one calls the cops. And as entertaining as he may be Briggs is not an imposing figure. He’s a lot of fun, but at no point does he feel like someone that Farraday or even his kids should fear.
And Roger Ebert’s Law of Economy of Characters is in full effect here too, so don’t be surprised when that one character played by a relatively known actor/actress who doesn’t seem to be doing much of anything eventually turns out to be fairly relevant.
But despite all that and to the credit of both the cast and director Baltasar Kormakur, the movie is fast-moving and casual entertainment that never bores. Wahlberg is charismatic and quite likeable as the reformed bad boy, and his love for his family is palpable especially when he’s beating the crap out of Ribisi. Speaking of whom, the nasally-voiced little guy manages to have the most fun with his role. It’s only Beckinsale who fails to stand out, but that’s due almost entirely to a character written with nothing to do aside from look concerned.
Kormakur shoots solid action scenes including a frenetic gunfight in Panama and some smaller scuffles back home in New Orleans. Just about all of them seem fairly avoidable, but the action is exciting, well framed and often suspenseful. A tense, albeit predictable, sequence towards the end even manages to make a nail-biter out of a gag that’s been absent from movies for a decade. (At least from movies I’ve seen.) The film also looks good throughout, most notably in the time spent on the ship and scurrying about in Panama City. The New Orleans scenes feel like they could have been anywhere, but that lack of geographic identity has little bearing on the lightweight fun to found here.
Contraband is a fun little movie well worth an evening out with friends, but it’s not a film destined for your DVD/Blu-ray shelf. Hell, when it hits home video in three months you may not remember you even saw it.
The Upside: Solid action and suspenseful set-pieces; strong sense of humor; fun cast
The Downside: Heavy with contrivances and logic holes; uneven tone between actions, reactions and consequences; Beckinsale is wasted in such a small and uninteresting role
On the Side: Up up down down left right left right B A