Directed by: Baltasar Kormákur
Written by: Aaron Guzikowski (screenplay/adaptation), Arnaldur Indriðason, Óskar Jónasson (“Reykjavik-Rotterdam”)
Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Ben Foster, Giovanni Ribisi, Kate Beckinsale, Caleb Landry Jones, J.K. Simmons
Anyone who ventures to a movie theater in the cold, dark, bleak month of January knows (or should know) the vital importance of keeping expectations in check (i.e., low). Oscar season has come and gone (mostly) and the first wave of potential blockbusters are still two or three months away, leaving studios with one goal in mind, to maximize the bottom-line on sure-to-underperform releases, like CONTRABAND, an overlong, contrived, ultimately unmemorable, if still watchable action-thriller. Mark Wahlberg, taking five or six steps back from Oscar-bait material, headlines a too-good-for-this-material cast (e.g., Giovanni Ribisi, Ben Foster, Kate Beckinsale [seriously]) working from a script written by Aaron Guzikowski and helmed by a relative unknown, Baltasar Kormákur, an Icelandic actor-director who appeared in “Reykjavik-Rotterdam,” the source film for CONTRABAND.
Set primarily in New Orleans, CONTRABAND centers on Chris Farraday (Wahlberg), an illegal smuggler-turned-legitimate-businessman (he owns a security-alarm-installing company), husband to Kate (Kate Beckinsale, marking time between UNDERWORLD entries), and father to Michael (Connor Hill) and Eddie (Bryce McDaniel). He has a nearly perfect picture postcard. It’s Kate’s brother, Andy (Caleb Landry Jones), a seaman and, from all accounts, a perpetual screw-up, who forces Farraday to return to illegal smuggling. Short on smarts and spine, Andy ditches a duffel bag filled with illegal drugs when the coast guard boards his ship off the Louisiana coast. That leaves Andy and his partner on the wrong end of Tim Briggs’ (Ribisi) wrath. Briggs wants Andy to make good on the dumped drugs, putting Andy in the hospital and his partner in the morgue as an object lesson to Andy and, more importantly, to Farraday himself.
Farraday tracks down Briggs to his rundown apartment on a low-income block. Before Farraday can eliminate Briggs with extreme prejudice, Briggs’ young daughter intervenes, potentially saving him from an untimely end. It also saves CONTRABAND from running 20-30 minutes, but that’s neither here nor there. With his childhood best friend and sometime smuggling partner, Sebastian Abney (Foster), on point, Farraday joins the crew of a commercial shipping vessel under the command of an old foe, Captain Camp (J.K. Simmons, also slumming). With the active help and cooperation of several shipboard colleagues, each in for a cut of the profits, Farraday plans to smuggle in counterfeit money from a contact in Panama City, Panama.
CONTRABAND contrasts and parallels Farraday’s shipboard and non-shipboard adventures in Panama with Kate’s increasingly troubling run-ins with Briggs and his trigger-happy henchmen. As with any carefully and not-so-carefully thought-out plan, Farraday runs into expected and unexpected obstacles, including a newly minted crime lord, Gonzalo (an over-the-top Diego Luna), with an unstable personality and an over-obvious death wish. Before you can say or type “Reykjavik-Rotterdam,” Farraday’s best-laid plans for releasing his family from Briggs’ death grip goes sideways. Throwing logic, common-sense, and verisimilitude aside, Kormákur and Guzikowski skip from one ludicrous turn to another (ridiculous twist) up to and including a third- or fifth-act character reveal even unsophisticated audience member will see coming in the opening minutes.
Expecting anything like a new or original take on the genre would be expecting far too much from CONTRABAND. For all its drawbacks and absurdities, CONTRABAND sporadically delivers what the title, poster, and TV ads/trailers promised: gripping, tension-filled, suspenseful scenes and set pieces, some involving the mechanics of illegal, cross-border smuggling and some involving macho-themed mayhem and other bouts of casual violence and F-bombs. It also does little to deglamorize the smugglers life, giving Farraday the opposite of a comeuppance in the final reel. Add in a game, if often hammy, cast (Mr. Ribisi comes immediately to mind), CONTRABAND ends up as a watchable, ultimately forgettable time-waster until next weekend’s watchable, forgettable time-waster (e.g., Beckinsale’s UNDERWORLD: AWAKENING, Soderbergh’s exercise in genre and style, HAYWIRE).