REVIEW: Mark Wahlberg Steers Contraband Safely into Port
Savvier and less cartoonish than those posters of Mark Wahlberg with stacks of cash taped to his famous torso might have you believe, Contraband is a remake of the 2008 Icelandic smuggling thriller Reykjavík-Rotterdam, directed by the original's star, Baltasar Kormákur. The action's been transported to New Orleans-Panama City, the goods upgraded from bootlegged liquor to counterfeit cash, and the whole enterprise daubed with some Hollywood gloss, but it's still an obligingly tense, scruffy addition to the one-last-crime genre.
Even for the now-retired "Lennon and McCartney of smuggling," as a character declares Wahlberg's Chris Farraday and his friend and former partner Sebastian Abney (Ben Foster), the gig is still about finding places to stash contraband while working on freighters, which no matter how it's spun is going to be far down the ladder of bad-boy glamour. And despite betrayals, domestic dramas and escalating plot twists that land Chris in the middle of a Panamanian firefight with only a few minutes to get back to the vessel on which he came, Contraband doesn't short-change the analog ingenuity and group effort required to be a competent smuggler, making the film as much an interesting peek at shipping in the underbelly of the shipping world as one in which Wahlberg shoves a gun up Giovanni Ribisi's nose.
Chris is a second-generation smuggler whose father, Bud (William Lucking), is serving time for a job gone wrong. He's married to Kate (Kate Beckinsale), they have two sons, and he's gone straight by starting an apparently successful home security business while Sebastian attends AA meetings and is overseeing a construction job. (Aside from a few music choices and an opening wedding scene, Contraband goes light on local color -- probably for the better, given how very un-New Orleans the cast is.) Trouble re-enters the Farradays' lives by way of Kate's younger brother Andy (Caleb Landry Jones), who's forced to dump the ten pounds of cocaine he'd brought with him when the ship he's on is raided by customs. The drugs were meant for Tim Briggs (Ribisi, who seems to believe himself to be in a different, goofier movie than everyone else on screen), a thug who, in Chris and Sebastian's absence, has moved up in the scene. Chris assumes Andy's debts and takes the kid with him on one last run to Panama, where he'll have to snake in large stacks of fake cash in order to pay off what's owed and avoid getting into a war with Tim. Sebastian, meanwhile, keeps an eye on Kate and the kids, and begins to give off hints that he's not as trustworthy as Chris believes.
Wahlberg may not seem the tiniest bit Southern, but he's always played a solid blue-collar action hero, and his Chris comes across as bluff and competent without seeming superheroic, at least in terms of his work -- how he and his cohort stay alive through an insane robbery attempt with a Panama City tough guy (Diego Luna) is movie ludicrousness. The need for stability at home, to be around and stick up for one's family, is the film's guiding force -- there's never a question that Andy's problem will become Chris', but also that Chris will forgive him later for doing something reckless in order to protect Kate. The ship, with its array of old friends and allies on board (among them Lukas Haas, Lucky Johnson and Ólafur Darri Ólafsson) is its own kind of disreputable family, into which Chris easily slips while tweaking his nose at the captain (J.K. Simmons), who oversees things like a surly camp counselor who knows trouble is going on behind his back but can't quite pin down who's responsible.
Contraband layers on the tension as Chris tries to navigate complication on top of complication during the small window he has at port to secure his illicit cargo, get it on board and stow it away unnoticed, and making the situation worse is the addition of a new delivery of coke. (Chris' aversion to importing drugs, on which he doesn't elaborate, is one of a few spots in which the film feels like it's unnecessarily soft-pedaling itself.) The digressions do allow for a cute conclusion which suggests the most valuable cargo is not always self-evident. While the action setpieces, including the aforementioned over-the-top heist shoot-out and a later race to save a character from an unpleasant end, are competently done; it's actually the process and the pleasure with which Chris returns to it that remain in memory after the guns and ill-advised face tattoos fade. "I love it, but don't tell your sister," he scolds Andy after the boy catches him grinning when he, yes, untapes the cash from under his shirt, a man content with the life he's made for himself, but finally, temporarily, back where he truly belongs.