Directed by: Baltasar Kormákur
Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Kate Beckinsale, Ben Foster, Giovanni Ribissi, Caleb Landry Jones
I’m not sure what kind of movie I expected going into Baltasar Kormákur’s Contraband, but I never expected something this amazingly convoluted. I’m talking about a Shakespearean (or at the very least, Tyler Perry) level of twists, turns and duplicity. An Americanized remake of the 2008 Icelandic film Reykjavik-Rotterdam (which director Kormákur actually produced and starred in), the film’s true purpose is to exist as a gritty crime drama about smugglers. Unfortunately, this supposed grittiness is just window dressing, since Contraband—filled to the gills with plot and melodrama—turns out to be a pretty silly movie once everything’s said and done.
Contraband’s tangled plot isn’t a complete drawback, since the overstuffed nature of the film is admittedly amusing. The whole thing revolves around Chris Farraday (Mark Wahlberg), a former world-class smuggler (he’s described as the “John Lennon of smuggling” in one of the film’s silliest lines) who’s now on the straight-and-narrow. But he gets pulled back in when his brother-in-law (Caleb Landry Jones, X-Men: First Class) gets into some trouble with a local thug (Giovanni Ribissi), meaning Chris must go on one last smuggling run to Panama in order to keep his family safe. As we all know, “one last job” never goes well in these movies.
Things soon start to get out of hand as the film becomes increasingly determined to prove exactly how stressful smuggling is. Not only is it difficult to protect his wife (Kate Beckinsale) and kids from various thugs while he’s away, Chris also has to deal with issues involving his former partner (Ben Foster). We also get crazed Panamanian criminals led by a psychotic madman (Diego Luna). Chris also gets entangled in an armored-truck robbery and accidentally ends up with a satchel full of drugs—and all this happens in the first two-thirds of the film. The screenplay just keeps piling on hard luck and complications for Chris, yet the film’s surprises are rarely as shocking as Contraband‘s writers seem to think they are. Most of these twists are telegraphed (the film’s secret bad guy is obvious from the beginning), while some things—like the subplot involving a Jackson Pollock painting—are clever to begin with, but drag out so long that it’s obvious where things are headed reels before the movie catches up.
Contraband tries to undercut its inherent silliness with stylized grittiness. In execution, however, this means grainy, under-lit handheld camerawork that’s drained of color, and big on extreme close-ups. Being in focus also seems to be low on the list of the movie’s concerns. It’s conflict over whether it’s a serious-minded crime film or a completely silly action movie even bleeds over into the acting. Wahlberg, Luna and J.K. Simmons give solid performances, but then we also have Giovanni Ribissi as a tattooed greaser, giving one of the most confounding performances I’ve ever seen. The character he creates—and there’s no other way of describing it, since he’s obviously in the Brando-mumbling-method acting mode—is pretty embarrassing, with Ribissi coming across more constipated and whiny than hardened and bad-assed. I guess his performance is fitting in a film that tries for hard-nosed but mostly ends up being kind of goofy. Rated R for violence, pervasive language and brief drug use.