"Contraband" presents a small conundrum. On the one hand, just about any new film released in the first few weeks of January is a film the studio has little or no confidence in. They are simply too busy concentrating their efforts on promoting their Award hopefuls. January is a dumping ground and they play films hoping to make some money and earn some promotion for the future DVD and download release. That's why the month is typically filled with horror films ("The Devil Inside") and bad action films ("Underworld"). While "Contraband" would seem to fit this theory, it has a pretty respectable cast. Mark Wahlberg, Giovanni Ribisi, Ben Foster, Lukas Haas and J.K. Simmons populate this incredibly predictable action programmer. Ultimately, it isn't as bad as you might expect because the cast is much better than the material.
Chris Farraday (Wahlberg) and his wife, Kate (Kate Beckinsale in the first of her two films released in two weeks. Why does this woman keep working? See my reviews of "Pearl Harbor", "Click", and "The Aviator" for arguments against her further employment in Hollywood. If you need further evidence, watch "Van Helsing" and "Whiteout") are happily living in Algiers, a suburb of New Orleans. Chris, a former smuggler, now owns and runs a security company, installing alarm systems in people's homes. One night, Kate gets a call from her brother, Andy (Caleb Landry-Jones) who is in the hospital. He was smuggling drugs into the country when Customs boarded the freighter he was working on. He dumped the cargo and now Briggs (Ribisi) insists he is still owed a lot of money for the missing drugs. If Andy can't repay the money, Briggs will come after Chris, Kate and their kids. Chris decides to do one last run, to pay off the debt to Briggs, and gets his best friend, Sebastian (Ben Foster), also a former smuggler, to keep an eye on Kate and the kids. Chris arranges for Andy, Danny (Lukas Haas) and some other friends to serve as crewmembers on Captain Camp's (J.K. Simmons) freighter. Camp knows Chris and doesn't like him, so he keeps an eye on him. Next stop, Panama.
Naturally, the plan doesn't go as Chris envisioned and there are many complications. Will they be able to get their cargo? Will they be able to get it and return to the ship in time? Will they be able to hide it from Camp's prying eyes?
Directed by Baltazar Kormakur, who played Wahlberg's role in "Reykjavic - Rotterdam", the film "Contraband" is based on, the new film is a pleasant diversion, which exceeded my low expectations.
There is an economy to the narrative of "Contraband" that seems to insist we leave our disbelief among the puddles of sticky soda and popcorn on the movie theater floor. As the characters move about their business, we should be clicking our tongues and shouting at the screen "Come on. That would never happen". But the filmmakers simply keep moving the story forward. Their conceit seems to say, "If we say it is so, then believe it." And this is what most filmmakers do, they are creating the universe, they have the right. The success of the film depends on how well they make this work and how much we are willing to go along for the ride.
Fortunately, the caliber of actors helps us make this leap a little faster.
As soon as Chris finds out about his brother-in-law's situation, he goes to talk to Briggs, who he finds completely unreasonable and unwilling to negotiate; he wants the entire amount he is owed. There seems to be an unspoken code among the community; Briggs states Chris is responsible for Andy's debts and that seems to be law. This is one of those "aw, come on" moments. But I overlooked it and went along for the ride.
There is a brief throwaway moment when someone says to Chris, "don't tell me you aren't enjoying this". This statement helps establish why the reformed smuggler would go to such great lengths to help Andy. He is bored playing the respectable businessman and needs the thrill, the adrenaline to keep going.
Wahlberg is good, earnest and believable. He doesn't really have to try very hard because he has played this character, this role many times before.
Giovanni Ribisi plays Briggs, a low-life criminal who lives in the Projects with his young daughter. Initially, his accent seems more than a little strange, but then you realize he is supposed to be Cajun and has adopted their dialect. What doesn't quite work is the speech pattern. He has the accent but he doesn't speak like the person he is supposed to be. Read a James Lee Burke book, watch "The Big Easy", visit New Orleans. Simply using the accent adds a layer of corniness to a performance that is already hammy and difficult to watch.
Sebastian, Chris' best friend and confidant, is a subdued role for Ben Foster. Maybe he and Ribisi played Rock, Paper, Scissors to see who would play Briggs. Either could. Both have played similar characters in the past. Ribisi apparently lost. The most interesting thing about Sebastian is that he and Chris used to work as a team, smuggling things together. For this last job, Chris asks him to stay behind and watch Kate and the kids. Later, as his character deals with some complications, Foster maintains the character's slow burn persona. He looks like he could blow up at any moment and when he doesn't, Sebastian becomes more interesting.
J.K. Simmons' Captain Camp enters the narrative late but he still manages to create one of the more interesting characters in the film. Camp has experience with Chris and because of this doesn't trust him and keeps a wary eye on the younger man. He also has an abnormal penchant for cleanliness, which is worked into the overall story in a unique and interesting way.
Kate Beckinsale. If you are a devoted reader of my reviews you know I am not a fan. To say the least. Thankfully, she is not in a lot of the film. Wahlberg's character travels to Panama, taking the focus away from her. Then, a plot development ensures she has an even smaller impact on the story. Because of her limited screen time, she isn't terrible.
When Chris begins to put his plan in motion, you quickly realize the plan will follow a pretty standard Hollywood rule that will dictate much of the narrative flow. Because of this, you know how the plan will unfold and the film becomes much less suspenseful.
This problem, and an extremely predictable plot twist, cause "Contraband" to falter. But it doesn't falter as much as you might expect.
Good for a bargain matinee or rental.