Mark Reviews Movies

Contraband (2012)


2 ˝ Stars (out of 4)

Director: Baltasar Kormákur

Cast: Mark Wahlberg, Ben Foster, Kate Beckinsale, Giovanni Ribisi, Caleb Landry Jones, Lukas Haas, J.K. Simmons, Diego Luna, William Lucking

MPAA Rating: R (for violence, pervasive language and brief drug use)

Running Time: 1:50

Release Date: 1/13/12

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Review by Mark Dujsik | January 12, 2012

Contraband does nothing wrong; it's just that what the movie does isn't particularly involving. The story is a shell game rigged by its central character, who knows exactly how to trick his opponents, and by its screenplay, which keeps all but the least important details from the audience until the big, extended reveal. We play along with it for the most part, because the movie has a sturdy cast of invested actors, well-paced direction by Baltasar Kormákur (who starred in the 2008 Icelandic movie Reykjavík-Rotterdam, upon which this one is based), and a focus on the process of how the characters move those shells around without resorting to a barrage of fights and shootouts.

It's a relatively calm movie, in which the most consistent violence comes from Barry Ackroyd's jerky cinematography of stammering zooms and handheld-camera movements, and, if it gets one thing right, that would be the sense that the characters' brains are working to resolve the complications as they arise. These are by no means dumb people, and neither are they in a brainless movie.

Chris Farraday (Mark Wahlberg) was once a world-class smuggler, until he married Kate (Kate Beckinsale) and started a family. At the wedding of a friend and former associate, he and Kate get some upsetting news: Her younger brother Andy (Caleb Landry Jones) is in the hospital.

Andy explains the situation: He was involved in a job to smuggle ten pounds of cocaine into the United States for a local dealer named Tim Briggs (Giovanni Ribisi, with a nasally voice that belies his cruel nature). When Customs agents boarded the freighter he and a partner were on, Andy dumped the package overboard. Briggs was none too pleased with this decision and plowed his SUV into Andy's car to show it. The partner died, and, unless he can pay Briggs back $700,000, Andy is next.

The exposition is really complete at this point, so Aaron Guzikowski's screenplay is a bit of a curio for a genre exercise in the way it continues to explore these characters lives in between the inciting incident (Andy owes the money) and the second act (Chris begins his plan to get the money in earnest). In between, we get a sense of Chris' life of normalcy, working his business of installing home security systems. We see Chris attempt to compromise with Briggs, giving us an idea of their respective histories—how Chris had a good business relationship with Briggs' older brother, to which Briggs simply responds, "I hated my brother." Briggs isn't one for compromise.

When pushed to the brink, Chris visits Briggs' apartment, grabs a gun from his hand, and begins pummeling him. At this point, Briggs' daughter walks out of the door, watching her father take a beating. It's mildly jarring, this little moment in which we're forced to see the character that has been firmly established as the villain as a father. Do not expect much to be made of this revelation as the movie progresses, but at least Guzikowski makes the effort to challenge the norm, if only for a instant.

The first act takes the time to explore the potential consequences of Chris' plan to smuggle millions of dollars in counterfeit currency from Panama to his hometown of New Orleans, as his wife worries about having to make trips with their sons to visit him in jail like they do his father. Sure enough, there's dear old dad Bud (William Lucking) in prison in the next scene telling his son how proud he is that his boy has gone legitimate but that he understands family comes first.

We also meet Sebastian (Ben Foster), Chris' best friend and former smuggling associate. He's also a recovering alcoholic, and Foster's performance hints at wounds that have never quite healed. Chris later tasks Sebastian with watching over his family, unaware of the full extent of the damage to his friend.

Kormákur knows how to populate his cast for maximum effect. In addition to Foster, Ribisi, and Wahlberg, who's more than simply convincing as a family man with a short temper and the ability to think on his toes, once the plan kicks into gear, J.K. Simmons turns up as the captain of the cargo ship that will bring Chris and his team to Panama and bring the counterfeit bills back. He, like a few other characters, seems one way only to end up the complete opposite. An unpredictable Diego Luna has a brief appearance as the new leader of Panama's counterfeit currency industry, which leads to the movie's single genuine action sequence during which Chris and his confederate Danny (Lukas Haas) become unwilling participants in the robbery of an armored truck.

By this point, things have started to deteriorate a bit. Even though the extra time spent with the characters is appreciated, the familiar gears of Guzikowski's apparatus begin to become exposed (The subplot involving Kate and Sebastian is the most transparent, since it becomes obvious fairly quickly that it will not follow through to the logical conclusion). Then it's merely a matter of watching Contraband play out as expected.

Copyright © 2012 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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