The fleet-footed action thriller Contraband, based on the 2008 Icelandic film Reykjavik-Rotterdam, is the antidote for anyone exhausted by the glut of downbeat end of the year movies. While it presents yet another tale of a reformed criminal reluctantly taking on one last job in order to be free of the underworld forever (a plot that may outlast the cockroaches), Contraband has at least somewhat of a fresh angle. It involves big time smuggling via cargo ship, an unfamiliar scenario which blows the doors off ye old bank heist in terms of visual intrigue. Once, while working as an able seaman, our hero, Chris Farraday (Mark Wahlberg) successfully snuck every manner of thing into his home base of New Orleans. After acquiring a family he quit, though five minutes into the movie it is clear anchors will soon be aweigh yet again.
The reason is to save the life of his nimrod brother-in-law Andy (Caleb Landry Jones), who tried his hand at smuggling, bungled it badly and elicited the wrath of a tattooed villain named Tim Briggs (an unrecognizable Giovanni Ribisi, chewing uncomfortably on a Cajun accent). Andy, who looks so young he ought to be smuggling Clearsil not drugs, has a $700,000 price on his head. The old adage “family is family” lands Chris on a ship for Panama hoping to bring back a pallet of counterfeit money. His crew includes an anxious newlywed, the ship’s engineer and a funny cook. “It’s not the A-team but it’s the best we can do,” Chris says. Meanwhile Chris’s best friend and former partner Sebastian (Ben Foster) stays behind in New Orleans, in charge of protecting his wife Kate (Kate Beckinsale, a sexy foil for Wahlberg) and their two young sons; the menacing Briggs is practically salivating over the chance to hurt them in lieu of Andy.
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The interplay between Wahlberg and Foster and then Ribisi is nicely done but the action in and around the cargo ship is where the movie’s real fun lies. There is plenty of guy humor – Chris, always known as the Houdini of smugglers, gets dubbed the Rug Doctor after the cantankerous Captain (J. K. Simmons, in fine officious form) demotes him to carpet cleaning — and lively action. In one of the film’s real money shots, director Baltasar Kormakur, a sometimes actor who starred in the film that provided the basis for this one, sends the ship careening toward a Panamanian dock, a giant battering ram that no one can stop or slow due to a mechanical failure. It’s muscle mania there on the deck as Chris wields a hammer to free a stuck anchor. Wahlberg is a fine actor (The Departed) and capable of giving truly sensitive performances (The Lovely Bones and The Fighter) but let us not overlook the continuing magnificence of his biceps.
Kormakur has worked steadily in his native Iceland since his 2000 debut 101 Reyjkavik but is just now making a leap to Hollywood. He plays with handheld shots and cuts back and forth so rapidly he threatens the story’s coherence time and again but keeps it just this side of comprehensible; the results are an engaging patchwork of excitement and urgency. You know how you worry about getting to the airport on time? At least you don’t have Chris’s insane Panama itinerary to worry about. While navigating unfamiliar slums, he must manage his idiotic brother-in-law, avoid torture by a Panamanian madman (Diego Luna) and come home with the goods, all within an hour.
There’s even a diversion involving, of all things, a Jackson Pollock. Is the Pollock theft a bit too much? The absurd bloodbath involved in getting it is, but is endurable for the ensuing gag about the $140 million painting continually being mistaken for a dirty old tarp. Contraband’s sense of humor is charmingly macho, real meat and potatoes stuff. Literally. “Oh I just stole some decent beef,” says Tarik airily, when a guard asks why he’s mucking about amongst the containers. The guard grunts with pleasure as he walks off; a little criminality in service of the stomach is all right with him. The movie is an easy pleasure, every domino falls into place. Chris and gang aren’t the A-Team, but they get more than a passing grade.
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