Film Review – Contraband
Tell me if this sounds familiar to you. A master criminal who is out of the game is drawn back into one last caper to protect his family. Not surprisingly, things don’t go as planned, some twists occur, but good overcomes evil in the end. Yeah, pretty generic, eh? Well that is what you get in Contraband.
Contraband is the story of former smuggler Chris Farraday (Mark Wahlberg), who, despite his love of the caper, has cleaned up his life for the safety of his wife Kate (Kate Beckinsale) and their two young boys. After his brother-in-law Andy (Caleb Landry Jones) botches a drug run for Tim Briggs (Giovanni Ribisi), Chris is forced into one last smuggle to save Andy and protect his family. This involves traveling all the way to Panama City aboard a ship to smuggle currency. The film is a remake of the Icelandic film Reykjavík-Rotterdam, which was produced by Baltasar Kormákur, who is the director of the remake. I guess they earn points by keeping it connected to the original filmmakers, if that is worth something.
Let me start by saying this film isn’t unwatchable. It isn’t great, but it is a familiar enough formula that it is almost like comfort food. You probably won’t come out of the theater angry, but you will have already forgotten about the movie the next day. The most impressive (and somewhat mystifying) thing is the solid cast they recruited to be in this movie. I want to go back and check out the original source material or see the chopping room floor, because there had to have been some reason all these people agreed to be part of it.
As a lead actor, Mark Wahlberg is serviceable. He’s charming enough that you believe in him, and he has proven to be a respectable action star over time. Given his success critically in films such as The Fighter, and as a producer on projects such as Entourage, it is somewhat surprising that he spends his time acting in (and producing) a film like Contraband. His character is filled with equal parts criminal mastermind and illogical dumb luck.
The biggest problem with this film is the supporting cast. It is full of characters who are completely two-dimensional that we learn nothing about. Not only that, but in a lot of cases their performances are bad. In particular I was frustrated by Giovanni Ribisi. I have long been a fan of Ribisi; I have liked him in many projects: Boiler Room, The Dog Problem, and Friends, to name a few. But he increasingly makes me question his ability with an equally long list of bad performances (Flight of the Phoenix, Avatar, The Gift). His work in Contraband is some of his worst. His character feels like a caricature of a stupid criminal. He is both incompetent and stupid, making him seem not really all that menacing. Likewise, I was surprised to be underwhelmed by Ben Foster. He usually does a great job of picking characters who are complicated and interesting; I don’t know why he signed up for the project. On the plus side, besides Mark Wahlberg’s, his character is the most charismatic. Similarly, I guess his character experiences some of the most development, but it is clichéd and fairly predictable. It feels like there must have been something cut out, since they went to so much trouble to set up his character as a recovering alcoholic. This is ignoring people like Kate Beckinsale, who really aren’t given any development beyond “scared but loving wife.”
On the surface, this film is pretty generic and straightforward, but as you look more and more at the flaws, it becoming increasingly confusing. A lot of the film is left for the viewer to fill in the gaps. For example, why does Mark Wahlberg have such an aversion to smuggling drugs when it seems like a much easier solution than smuggling currency? And why are the villains so obsessed with getting them to smuggle drugs (as opposed to just being interested in getting their money)? These are just a few of the many questions that are glossed over. I’ll save you from diving into many of the others ones, because they might be deemed “spoilers.”
The smuggling process itself is fairly clever, but the majority of the time as part of the caper is spent adapting to people screwing up. With the exception of Mark Wahlberg, essentially everyone in this film feels incompetent on some level. Additionally, his brother-in-law Andy isn’t necessarily a bad guy, but his constant screw-ups make it really difficult to be sympathetic to the character. But it goes beyond just him—the majority of the challenges the characters face in this movie are ones that could be resolved if people just acted reasonably logically.
If you are looking for a simple action movie to kill some time, this might be okay, but there are so many better caper films out there I think you can do better. Of all the things I take away from this movie, it is that Panama City, despite some pretty horrendous crime, looks like a pretty cool place, and with the exception of maybe the tourism department of Panama, I don’t think anyone involved would be happy about that.
Final Grade: C-