There is something to be said for the perfectly serviceable movie, and Contraband is perfectly serviceable. Better than it probably should be, but not as good as it could have been, Contraband works well enough in a middle of the road.
Arbitrarily set in New Orleans, Contraband stars Mark Wahlberg (not even trying to put any bayou in his voice) as an ex-smuggler who has gone straight. We figure this out because people tell it to us a lot; the first act of Contraband is the definition of perfunctory, with characters telling us who they are, what they do and how they do it in order to quickly get the story moving.
So he’s a retired smuggler, but he has to go on One Last Run because his brother-in-law (mushmouthed Caleb Landry Jones) has royally fucked up an attempt to smuggle ten pounds of coke into the country. The baddies - seemingly headed by Giovanni Ribisi, trying to put himself into some kind of Nic Cage over-acting headspace - will kill the brother-in-law if they don’t get their 700 grand, and after him they’ll go after his family. Including Marky Mark’s wife and two sons.
It’s one of those situations where Wahlberg is FORCED to do crime to save his family, allowing us to see him as a good guy while still marveling at his criminal skills. This is the stuff I liked the least, because I enjoy a good criminal just being a criminal. I don’t need Taken-esque rationalizations for why the hero of the movie is performing illegal acts, I just need him to do it well and cool.
Wahlberg does do it well and cool; he gets himself on the crew of a cargo ship headed to Panama and he assembles a motley crew of one dimensional guys to help him smuggle in a ton of counterfeit money. There’s some enjoyable stuff in this section of the film, a moment or two that feels like the movie is either showing us legitimate and esoteric smuggling tricks or a moment or two where the movie threatens to actually give these characters some character. They’re all likeable enough in their one dimensional way, though.
Contraband is a weird movie because it has no sense of time. It’s the kind of film where Wahlberg and company have one hour to get their counterfeit money to the boat but they end up going to two criminals AND getting involved in an armored car heist - the tension gets defused when you realize the movie doesn’t care about placing an actual ticking clock. In fact you sort of resent the ticking clock, because you’re smarter than it (there’s a really egregious ticking clock at the end that’s just as silly).
But the heist is pretty cool, if not shot in a particularly interesting way. That sums up a lot of the film - it’s pretty cool, and it would have been even cooler if the filmmakers had really gone the extra yard.
Contraband is based on an Icelandic film called Reykjavic-Rotterdam, which I haven’t seen, but the producer of that movie directs this one. His style is essentially Early Century Action Generic, but with less shaky-cam than I expected from the trailers. Which is, of course, a welcome thing.
Wahlberg is at his best when he’s being a tough guy, and once his character slips back into smuggler mode he’s a blast. The story is just a series of preposterous complications, and it’s a testament to the film (and the evolution of Wahlberg) that we buy Marky Mark as a guy who can out-think these complications (again, since he’s not a ‘criminal,’ he doesn’t use a lot of violence. They want women to like this movie too, but they have no idea that women kind of dig dangerous tough guys).
Ribisi is in the wrong movie; his over the top stuff isn’t really rewarded by what’s going on around him. Still, I want to see the movie he thinks he’s making. On the other end of the spectrum is Ben Foster, who underplays another role. Lucky Johnson is a bunch of fun as Tarik, the ship’s cook who helps with the smuggling, and JK Simmons is playing a priggish authority figure, so you know he’s great. He looks really good in a captain’s uniform, too.
Contraband is the sort of serviceable movie that contains just enough elements to make it interesting. Some of the Panama locations are cool, and I like the boat element (even if not enough is done with it). There’s a terrific payoff to that armored car heist that is also great.
The supporting cast and Wahlberg in his element are what make Contraband a solid experience. But there are just enough hints of what could have been to make you wish the film had gone a touch bigger.