Icelandic actor turned director Baltasar Kormàkur has taken one of the better European crime films of the late 2000s and brought it to American shores. But like that expensive TV you imported on the cheap that turns up on your doorstep as just a wooden frame filled with pinball machine parts, somewhere between inception and arrival things just went bad.
Its hard to put a finger on exactly what. Its not entirely the casting. Wahlberg is a reliable enough action star whos proven he can act even if he doesnt bother. Contraband is one of his doesnt bother roles. Chris is an old time gangster who doesnt take crap from anyone, is smarter than most of the guys in his line and is troubled by little of the events in the film. It takes the would-be-smuggler brother in law (Kent Jude Bernard) whose antics brought him back to the black market actually asking Chris if hes enjoying himself before we see a glint of any sort of emotion out of him.
Young Tommy is a class A idiot who tried to smuggle in several pounds of drugs for a local crime lord (Giovanni Ribisi) and failed, forcing Chris to take on his debt in order to save his life.
Ribisi may seem like a strange choice to play a gang land thug, trying hard by covering himself up with muttonchops and tattoos, but his eccentric acting style has always been good at switching quickly from pathos to menace and it is frequently entertaining. Ben Foster is an even better pick, a much better actor than the role he is in, as Farradays best friend who tries to support him while struggling with his own alcoholism.
In fact, as bland as Wahlberg is–he emotes while arguing with his wife about his return to the life about as much as he does when antagonizing crew members on the ship he sneaks aboard–hes got a decent cast supporting him up.
Its not the filmmaking that brings the film down, either. Cinematographer Kormákur and Barry Ackroyd (“The Hurt Locker,” “Coriolanus) have built a slick looking film which careens rapidly from set up to set up. A bit too rapidly, actually. Contraband” moves along at a paranoid clip, like a shark afraid to stop lest it should suffocate and die.
Action sequences, when they do come, are effective adrenaline injection devices, particular a showstopper of an armored car heist in the streets of Panama. The key modifier being when they do come.
For everything it does right Contraband never gels, mainly because neither its director nor screenwriter Aaron Guzikowski know exactly what kind of movie theyre making. Is it an action movie? A crime caper, a drama about betrayal and family bonds? It might want to be all of the above but no one has any idea how to make that work and the result is a broken neck from tone whiplash and a plot which starts and stops before eventually meandering off to a slow, undignified death.
Contraband’s not a bad movie. It’s not a particularly good movie, either. Like so many films released each year, and particularly at this time of year, it just sort of exists for no reason or purpose. You’re best off just sealing it back up in the fake wall it came out of and letting it continue on to the next port of call.