Just when you think you've gone clean, it's a safe assumption in cinemaland that just around the corner there will be good reason to pull off one last dirty job. An American remake of 2008's Icelandic "Reykjavik-Rotterdam," still unreleased in the U.S., "Contraband" is as to-the-point as its title, and only slightly less generic than suggested. Or maybe it's not. As directed by Baltasar Kormákur, not coincidentally the lead actor in said foreign precursor, the film has an efficient, lived-in quality to its slackless pacing that keeps one's attention occupied even as it becomes readily apparent it's all been seen before. Forever playing like the "B"-story in any one season of TV's "24," Kormákur's high-stakes premise is pulled off well enough, but gets more unpleasant and morally murky as it goes. In the end, the picture leaves the audience wondering why they ever bothered to care. Article continues below
Once an expert career smuggler, Chris Farraday (Mark Wahlberg) has since settled into a respectable life in New Orleans, complete with beautiful wife Kate (Kate Beckinsale), two kids, and his own security systems company. When Kate's younger brother Andy (Caleb Landry Jones) gets into serious trouble with oily drug lord Tim Briggs (Giovanni Ribisi), Chris tries to do the right thing, then sees that Andy's and his family's lives won't be safe until the debt is paid. Getting a job aboard a cargo ship sailing between Louisiana and Panama, Chris' methodical scheme to score millions of dollars in counterfeited bills takes several unexpected corkscrews while Kate, back at home, believes quite wrongly that she's in safe hands with Chris' best friend Sebastian (Ben Foster).
"Contraband" marks the writing debut of Aaron Guzikowski, and it is a capable, no-nonsense piece of work that, nevertheless, doesn't go out of its way to be anything terribly special. What style the film has got can be attributed to director Baltasar Kormákur and cinematographer Barry Ackroyd (2010's "Green Zone"), the look of the film both grungy and jazzy and oddly attractive in its textural location shooting in New Orleans and Panama. As for the storytelling, there's enough that is compelling about it as the conflicts grow stickier for one to keep watching. Convoluted though the movie is, there's simply not a lot of downtime to ruminate its stretches in plausibility. Where things ultimately lead and the decisions certain characters make, however, are more difficult to overlook, blurring the line between what is right and dutiful and what is a product of excess and greed.
Mark Wahlberg (2010's "The Fighter") plays blue-collar guys as well as any A-list actor today, so maybe that is why he's begun to repeat himself one too many times. His role of Chris Farraday is a familiar one, but Wahlberg is immensely watchable and holds the center of focus. What he plans to do is criminal, but it's out of desperation that he returns to this old life; although he admits to missing the thrill of it, the steps he has made to walk the straight and narrow are admirable. What is not so virtuous is where the narrative leads in the final scenes, suggesting that Chris has forgotten the value of an honest existence and his spouse doesn't mind so much as long as there's big money and lavish property to be had. Kate Beckinsale (2009's "Whiteout") has an underwhelming amount to do as Kate, playing the levelheaded wife who finds herself at the receiving end of some nasty physical assaults. She is believable with every bop to the head she receives, but the actress deserves more than what this part offers her. Supporting turns are on the top-notch end of the spectrum, maybe because the characters (at least some of them) have been written as layered archetypes rather than paper-thin bozos. Ben Foster (2011's "The Mechanic") is fascinating to watch on screen and he's quite good as Sebastian, a guy whose destructive nature eats away as he sees himself doing bad things to people he cares about. More straightforwardly villainous but interesting all the same, Giovanni Ribisi (2011's "The Rum Diary") has a blast in his quirky, weasel-like take on Briggs, a heavy who's obviously a loser.
Compelling in the moment but adding up to less than the sum of its parts, "Contraband" is pretty standard fare as far as pulpy thrillers go. There are no great messages or themes to impart, particularly as the characters seem to allow corruption to overtake them as much as the "bad guys" do. Chris' and Kate's drive to protect their children is also an afterthought since their two young sons are treated as virtual glorified extras rather than affectionately portrayed loved ones. The movie has no time to spend on building many substantive relationships as it barrels forward with the convoluted plot at hand. Director Baltasar Kormákur has helmed a brisk film, but also a shallow one that hasn't any staying power in the viewer's mind. When the year is over in eleven and a half months' time, it will have been long forgotten.