Contraband is one of those movies with ambitions so low, it can’t help but succeed even if it doesn’t amount to much. Star/producer Mark Wahlberg found himself a decent, if unspectacular Icelandic heist movie and remade it as a decent, if unspectacular Hollywood heist movie. The result isn’t a particularly bad movie or particularly memorable one.
It is what it is, a decent action/thriller that works like a well-oiled machine without ever reaching exciting heights or embarrassing lows. Given all of the overblown and convoluted epics that pass for action movies these days, I suppose Contraband should be considered a modest success simply for delivering as expected, but given all of the talented people involved I can’t help but wish they had set their sights a little higher. Trust me, you’ve seen this movie before, just not this specific iteration.
Wahlberg plays a former smuggling prodigy who has gone legit to raise a family. Unfortunately, his idiot brother-in-law didn’t give up the family business and ditches a hefty stack of cocaine when his ship is boarded by customs. The movie’s requisite tattoo covered cartoon villain (ridiculously portrayed by Giovanni Ribisi, more on him later) doesn’t take to kindly to his drugs disappearing and gives him a week to pay off a $700,000 debt. Suddenly, Wahlberg is thrust back into his old smuggling gig and agrees to run some counterfeit bills from Panama City to get his bro-in-law out of debt. Of course, things don’t go as planned so a ridiculous Jackson Pollak painting heist and an extra drug deal go down on the trip as well, all while Ribisi is violently threatening Wahlberg’s family at home. Don’t worry though, this isn’t the type of movie where the bad guys have any chance of winning.
Since Marky Mark has become a bit of a power player in Hollywood as a producer/actor, the guy was able to dig into his rolodex and pluck out an impressive line up of actors for this flick and the ensemble cast is the highlight. Wahlberg is perfectly fine as the lead. He’s always better in supporting character actor roles than as action leads, but the money and fame is in this type of stuff and he doesn’t it as well as possible. JK Simmons is his typically amusing n’ angry self as the screwed over ship captain, the immensely underrated Ben Foster as excellent as always as Wahlberg’s friend with a secret, Diego Luna is quite amusing as a ridiculous crime lord, Caleb Landry Jones is a great lovable loser as the brother-in-law, and Kate Beckinsale plays her loving wife/damsel in distress with as much dignity and grace as possible. The only piece of miscasting is Giovanni Ribisi as the film’s villainous drug dealer. He simply doesn’t have the physical presence to be much of a threat and tries to compensate for that with an absurd growling voice and a near limitless supply neck tattoos. Ribisi’s performance would even be over-the-top as the bad guy in a Christmas pantomime and it’s a real shame that he ended up in the role.
Contraband is a remake of the Icelandic thriller Reykjavik-Rotterdam and was weirdly directed by the star of that version, Baltasar Kormakur. I haven’t seen the original film, so can’t make a comparison, but Kormakur does a decent, workman like job handling the material. He shoots the action movie in the now clichéd handheld camera style and handles the set pieces efficiently. That sounds like faint praise and that’s all the movie really deserves. It’s fine. It works. It just isn’t anything special. A bad situation is kicked off in the opening scenes that spirals increasingly out of control over the course of the movie before ending on a note that punishes all of the bad guys and rewards all of the good guys. The film veers off the rails for one weirdly out of place armored car heist, but that’s balanced out with a hilariously effective plan for Walhberg to punish all the bad guys in one quick cocaine-related move. Other than the one stand out and one wtf sequence, the rest of the movie plays out smoothly, efficiently, and as expected.
I wish I could speak more highly of Contraband or come down on it harder, but the movie doesn’t deserve either treatment. At the end of the day, this is just a harmless and decently handled action flick that should slip in and out of theaters without much praise or damnation. With it coming out in the January junk heap of Hollywood releases, I suppose it looks a little better than it is by virtue of the fact that it isn’t a complete failure, but the movie isn’t anything special either. I suppose if you feel like watching Mark Wahlberg take on some bad guys and come out on top, you’ll have a good time. I can’t say it’s worth rushing out to see, but if you’re really bored or this movie pops up on TV on some hungover Sunday morning, you could do a lot worse. I guess that’s kind of an achievement.