‘Contraband’ Review (2012)

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Contraband review
Mark Wahlberg in Contraband
Photo: Universal Pictures

With Contraband, Mark Wahlberg calls on his criminal-turned-family-man performance chops as Chris, a one-time drug smuggler who’s left that life behind so he can settle down with his wife (Kate Beckinsale) and two kids. But when his brother-in-law follows in his footsteps and finds himself indebted to a local drug lord, Chris is pulled back in and you better believe it’s going to be an adrenaline rush to the finish.

This is a ticking time clock thriller that doesn’t know when to let off the throttle or say enough is enough. It never takes a breather, though I’m fairly certain director Baltasar Kormakur has a potentially great career ahead of him if he can find himself a quality script to work with.

At the outset, Kormakur channels the visionary stylings of Michael Mann as the Customs and Border Protection (CBP) descends on a shipping freighter suspected of smuggling drugs into the country. From a wide shot to an intimate view from a helicopter cockpit to the splash of the night’s waves, there’s a gritty sense of realism to the scene that makes you think you just might be in for something special.

Aboard the ship, Andy (Caleb Landry Jones), the aforementioned brother-in-law, is forced to dump his cargo (10 pounds of cocaine) to escape custody. But when you’re bringing drugs into the country you still have to answer for the product you lost. Drug dealers are prickly that way.

Enter Giovanni Ribisi, the tatted tough guy drug lord Tim Briggs (but he’s normally just called Briggs), donning yet another ridiculous accent as he plays another version of the “worst guy you’re going to meet today.” Why can’t Ribisi just use his own voice? What kind of accent is he trying anyway? Oh well.

Briggs isn’t interested in excuses, all he knows is he has no product and Andy and his partner are to blame. To teach them a lesson he puts them both in the hospital. The partner doesn’t make it.

We’re not talking out of the norm stuff here and the similarities to a Michael Mann feature have quickly faded away as this film begins showing signs that it’s a standard studio action feature midway through, hellbent on keeping you stimulated visually while logic and believability go out the window.

Chris essentially becomes the criminal version of Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt in an impossible mission that will pit him against Panamanian gangsters, a moody ship captain, detours, double-crossing and family threats. All of which play a part in keeping the narrative at a boiling point.

Curiously, there is actually a decent film to be made here had they not gone so far with the family threats and constant need for action. Once the plot is put into place I don’t think there’s a single scene that doesn’t end with a last second heroic; be it a shoot-out with the police in the slums of Panama, simply pulling into the Panama port or the ridiculous final act of heroism that really shouldn’t have been a part of the film at all.

There’s enough drama when lives are at stake, particularly the lives of a woman, her two children and her young brother. The fact the lives of these people are threatened should the plan go awry is more than enough to create drama, especially since we all pretty much know how things are going to end.

The first 30 minutes or so of the film, however, are quite strong. The opening scene, as I mentioned, puts you in the mood for a gritty thriller from the outset. Push aside the rote villain performance of Ribisi and the establishing of the rest of the cast is equally satisfying. The best part, however, are the details pertaining to the task at hand.

I can’t remember if I’ve ever seen a film where they break down the ins and outs of a smuggler’s criminal checklist, and I’m not going to go so far as to say the way the operation is broken down in Contraband is precise, but it’s constructed well enough to get you to look on with interest, wondering how they’re going to pull it all off.

As far as the cast is concerned, it’s pretty much all about recognizable faces taking on roles you’re familiar seeing them in from Wahlberg to Ribisi to Foster. However, I will say Kate Beckinsale is playing against type as we are used to seeing her kicking werewolf ass or at least standing up for herself whereas here she’s essentially the damsel in distress in much need of a man to rescue her. One guess how that turns out.

The biggest problem this story faces is a matter of too many characters and too many attempts at drama. Considering it’s a remake of the 2008 Icelandic feature Reykjavik-Rotterdam, on which Kormakur served as producer, I would have thought it would serve as a perfect opportunity to cut things down rather than keep things so convoluted. That is, if the original film was this manic. I wouldn’t know, I haven’t seen it, but am curious to check it out.

Contraband isn’t necessarily a bad film, it just comes across as a film made by a competent director that needs better material.

GRADE: C