Directed by Baltasar Kormákur
In Contraband, Mark Wahlberg plays a former smuggler who's gone legit, but gets roped back in for one last job. It's not unlike his real-life role as Mark Wahlberg, a former rapper-actor who's gone legit (via P.T. Anderson, David O. Russell, and Martin Scorsese) but periodically gets roped back in for one more low-end urban thriller like Four Brothers, Shooter, or, hey, Contraband,. Wahlberg plays Chris Farraday, owner of a security system business. He's left smuggling behind, but when his brother-in-law (Caleb Landry Jones) tries his hand at it, he gets in deep to Tim Briggs (Giovanni Ribisi), and Chris volunteers to smuggle his troubles away. Chris's return to crime is pitched as reluctant, but it takes roughly two minutes for him to agree to it, and another fifteen seconds to admit that he's missed the game.
I'm not sure if Chris's obvious love for smuggle life makes the movie disingenuous about its premise or just honest about how thrillers get their kicks, but it certainly makes Chris himself seem a little stupid: to its credit, the movie portrays smuggling as a pretty crummy way to make a living. Chris must forge a variety of documents in order to secure a job on a container ship, where he cleans carpets until it docks in Panama, at which point he scrambles around in a beat-up van, trying to make shady deals before the ship departs.
The movie doesn't explain all of this upfront, leaving the audience (or at least me) to watch the planning of a heist that hasn't been laid out, unsure of whether the execution is going according to plan. In another thriller, this might pass for faith in the audience's (or my) intelligence, but given the sub-Bourne stylistic flourishes—pointlessly handheld cameras; jittery, whipped-up action scenes—it's equally likely that the murkiness of both writing and direction can be chalked up to a hollow attempt at gritty cool.
During the extended Panama section, some of that posturing pays off, as the script nests horrible complications within double-crosses, forcing Chris to make split-second decisions, less crafty than extremely lucky. As such, this midsection approaches spontaneity, an enjoyably haphazard flip of the tight-heist script. The movie increases tension by surrounding Wahlberg with so many squirrelly character actors: Lukas Haas and Ben Foster as his former criminal buddies, and Ribisi, who has grown so much over the years, from playing Nic Cage's fuck-up brother in Gone in 60 Seconds to the guy threatening the fuck-up brother here (where he is nonetheless also characterized, in part, as someone else's fuck-up brother).
With all those guys around, the girls, er, girl needs only sit around and wait to be endangered. Kate Beckinsale takes over the popular role of The Wife; though she has plenty of ass-kicking experience (Underworld 4 drops next week!), Wahlberg and company are too chivalrous to allow for such indignities to befall her here. Instead, she's repeatedly knocked on the head, eventually wrapped in plastic and left for dead, moving from metaphorical to actual prop over the course of two hours. The creepy, pointless lingering on Beckinsale in distress highlights Contraband's indecision in committing to either a gritty cautionary tale about criminal life or a cynical celebration/exploitation of it. Wahlberg, too, flips between quick-thinking rogue and righteous family protector; he may look slick, but he and his January movie are both morally bumbling.
Opens January 13