We’ve seen a number of heist hybrids in the past few years. Inception fused the heist thriller with brainy sci-fantasy. Fast Five attempted to graft the heist model on a physics-free race car. Tower Heist blended comedy with a logic-free heist story. And now we have Contraband, which blends the heist paradigm with…Mark Wahlberg?
The story finds Wahlberg as Chris Farraday, a retired criminal who specialized in smuggling illegal goods from Panama to New Orleans in the belly of cargo ships.
As the movie opens, Farraday’s kid brother-in-law Andy (Caleb Landry Jones) has taken up the mantle and is trying to bring drugs into the U.S. When customs raid the ship he’s forced to dump the drugs overboard to save his own skin. This puts him in the crosshairs of stateside dealer Briggs (Giovanni Ribisi) who hired Andy to smuggle the drugs in the first place.
Farraday tries to work out a deal with Briggs, but Briggs is an unreasoning lowlife who threatens not only Andy, but our hero’s wife (Kate Beckinsale) and kids. He has no choice but to make (you guessed it) one last run to Panama to square Andy’s debt and leave his criminal life behind once and for all.
Farrady is more than up to the task though. See, he’s the “Houdini” of contraband, a master at hiding stolen goods in every nook and cranny he can find or carve out at the crew member on a giant cargo ship.
Though Contraband may not be a traditional heist story, it mirrors the heist formula by stacking up insurmountable odds and then letting us marvel at the ingenuity of the protagonists as they circumvent the security systems, human oversight and other obstacles that stand in their way. Frankly, we never though much about how illegal goods make their way through the country’s busy ports, so the movie holds lots of fun twists and surprises there.
All of this is filtered through Wahlberg’s gritty, blue-collar sensibilities. There’s no glamor here. Farraday is a successful businessman settled into an upper middle-class existence. His best pal (and former partner in crime) Sebastian (Ben Foster) has the closest thing to upscale, with his under-construction bachelor apartment. Everything else smacks of the grit and grim that stains the hull of Captain Camp’s cargo vessel.
And the story is bouyed by a great cast. It’s rounded out by J.K. Simmons as the cantankerous Camp, Lukas Haas as Farraday’s jittery smuggling partner and Ólafur Darri Ólafsson (who also appeared in Reykjavík-Rotterdam, the Icelandic film on which this one is based).
Ribisi is the stand-out here as the sleazy, thoroughly white-trash villain of the piece. His is the kind of character that brings menace through his obvious cruelty and sheer volatility. He’s unpredictable and steals ever scene he’s in, even when he’s getting his ass handed to him by Whalberg.
What isn’t so great is Baltasar Kormákur’s directing style. He favors the listless, shaky hand-held look that’s meant to bring a feel of grit and realism to the movie. Mostly it just irritates and makes the action harder to follow than it should be. Then, in the middle of the movie, he inexplicably abandons it for one super slow-mo explosion. The image is arresting enough but it sticks out like a slick, polished sore thumb when held against the rest of the movie.
Also troublesome are the logistics of the movie’s be smuggling sequence. Witness how much ground Farraday covers during his tiny one-hour window of opportunity in Panama, which coincidentally happens during a massive armored car heist and shoot-out with the local police. It’s the kind of stuff that makes your head hurt if you think about it too much.
The really good heist movies thrive on having a tightly locked plot. This ain’t that. What Contraband is, is a squarely OK diversion of a action thriller. The great cast, interesting plot and well-placed humor are enough to make up for the lack of plausibility and queasy camera work. There are worse ways to spend an evening than watching Mark Wahlberg growl tough-guy dialogue while bloodying a whiny Giovanni Ribisi’s nose.