Director: Baltasar Kormákur
Writer: Aaron Guzikowski, Arnaldur Indriðason and Óskar Jónasson (Reykjavik-Rotterdam)
Cast: Mark Wahlberg, Giovanni Ribisi, Ben Foster
Contraband is yet another Hollywood remake of a successful foreign film, directed by Baltasar Kormákur, who starred in the original. However, given Reykjavik-Rotterdam’s relative obscurity outside Iceland and the extent to which Contraband resembles any other stereotypical Hollywood action film, it is unlikely that anyone will notice.
The plot centres around Chris Farraday (Mark Wahlberg), a retired smuggler who is forced to go on one final run when his teenage brother-in-law, Andy (Caleb Landry Jones), botches a job on a cargo ship and finds his life threatened by his dangerous boss, Tim Briggs (Giovanni Ribisi). Chris leaves his wife, Kate (Kate Beckinsale), and two young sons under the care of his best friend, Sebastian (Ben Foster), while he takes Andy to Panama in order to smuggle back an enormous quantity of counterfeit money to pay off Briggs. He assures them that nothing can possibly go wrong. Naturally, everything goes wrong.
The job is extremely risky, and what should have been a relatively simple run for an experienced smuggler turns into something closely resembling a heist. It is excessively contrived and relies on a great deal of remarkably good fortune. Farraday’s journey puts him into conflict with local crime bosses, police and customs officials, and, as the plot develops, we get an increasing sense of déjà vu. However, the action sequences are good and not too frequent, and, despite being predictable, it is usually entertaining.
The other side of the film works better, and Contraband would have benefited from making the action a foil for the drama back in New Orleans rather than the other way around. There is so much more at stake compared to Farraday’s disinterested caper around Panama. His family are constantly under threat, embroiled in a conflict they do not fully understand. Giovanni Ribisi is the best thing about the film; he puts on a grimy, drawling voice and creates the kind of villain you can’t take too seriously until you realise he is deadly serious. Briggs is vicious and childish in equal measure, and Ribisi deserves far more screen time than he gets. The twist which develops in the second half of the film increases the intensity, bringing the harsh realities of smuggling to light. Debts have to be repaid, in money or blood, and everyone has debts.
But, on the whole, Contraband doesn’t strive for anything other than mediocrity. The plot is rounded off with an almost boastful predictability, but, after what has come before, it is everything that is expected. There is a running joke about a valuable painting being confused for a piece of tarpaulin which has been done so many times it makes you wonder if that’s the point.
Contraband practically begs you to dislike it but, in the end, you probably won’t. In many ways, it feels like it should have been a complete waste of time. Wahlberg has reached the stage in his career when he should be making better films, more for his name than his talent, and it shows here – he has no inclination to do anything at all with the starring role. But despite its many flaws, Contraband is a decent story-driven action film that works as a piece of entertainment, even if it won’t live long in the memory.
Extended version of a review originally published in The Student on 20 March 2012