Giovanni Ribisi, the most colorful of the bunch, is at his over-the-top best and is fun to watch every second.
Contraband has had an interesting journey to completion. Based on the Icelandic film Reykjavik-Rotterdam, the American adaptation is directed by Baltasar Kormakur, who starred as Mark Wahlberg’s counterpart in the original film. Already a respected filmmaker in his native country, Kormakur makes his American debut with Contraband which, while not an excellent film, displays great promise for future successes.
Chris Farraday (Wahlberg) is the classic former criminal gone straight who is doing his best to leave his prior misdeeds behind him. In the not-too-distant past, Chris was the best smuggler in New Orleansand his legendary status afforded him a comfortable, but risky, lifestyle. Now, though, his wife Kate (Kate Beckinsale) and their two children are all that matter to him. Unlike his cinematic predecessors such as Dean Keaton in The Usual Suspects, Chris has no trouble blending into normal (read: law-abiding) society, even though he is a crook installing home security systems.
His new status as a legitimate small business owner comes to a screeching halt, though, when Kate’s younger brother Andy (Caleb Landry Jones) screws up a drug-smuggling deal for a local thug named Briggs (Giovanni Ribisi). When Briggs comes looking for Chris to pay Andy’s debt, Chris realizes that, in order to protect his family, he has arrange a big score. His only option is to hop a ship heading to Panama and hope he can get back to the States before Briggs turns violent.
Where most action movies today are filled with stock characters and flat performances, Contraband contains terrific actors creating wonderful characters. Ribisi, the most colorful of the bunch, is at his over-the-top best and is fun to watch every second. Sounding like Tony Soprano with emphysema, Briggs is an unpredictable badass who you wouldn’t want to cross. Similarly, Diego Luna (Milk, Y Tu Mamá También) shows up as a Panamanian crime lord who is so drunk with his newfound power that he is frighteningly unbalanced. Watching these two actors act circles around Wahlberg (who is, once again, playing Mark Wahlberg) is pure gold.
We also get a great performance by J.K. Simmons as the captain of the ship on which Chris is attempting to smuggle his goods. As Captain Camp, Simmons manages to remain ambiguous enough that we are not sure if he’s a good guy or a bad guy; all we know is we don’t like him. Ben Foster (The Messenger) plays Sebastian Abney, Chris’s right-hand man who is having a much more difficult time surviving among normal citizens. Foster, one of the most reliably animated character actors working today, is severely underutilized, but is enjoyable to watch nevertheless.
Kormakur definitely knows how to stage an action sequence, utilizing multiple cameras to get maximum coverage and keeping the audience on their toes with short and frequent bursts of violence. Contraband does feel uneven at times, though, as Kormakur experiments with Tony Scott-esque editing and effects in the second half of the movie, whereas the first half is devoid of these stylistic flourishes. He does, however, make excellent use of aerial cinematography to capture the landscape of New Orleans and life on the bayou.
The film’s only real misstep is the screenplay, which drags during several key sequences. Contraband is trying to be Ocean’s 11 set in the world of seafaring smugglers but the plot isn’t nearly as intelligent or creative. Kormakur’s film shares more than a few similarities with this year’s Fast Five, but even that film surpasses Contraband when it comes to action and car chases.
Contraband is far from a perfect movie, but it does offer some solid escapist entertainment. Hopefully, it will serve as the arrival of a new voice in American filmmaking, as Kormakur is undeniably talented and has a keen sense of cinematic storytelling. | Matthew Newlin