Contraband

Director: Baltasar Kormákur
Writer: Aaron Guzikowski, Arnaldur Indriðason and Óskar Jónasson (Reykjavik-Rotterdam)
Year: 2012
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.

Giovanni Ribisi

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.

Rob Dickie

Extended version of a review originally published in The Student on 20 March 2012

Hanna

Director: Joe Wright
Writer: Seth Lochhead, David Farr
Year: 2011
Cast: Saoirse Ronan, Eric Bana, Cate Blanchett

★★★★☆

Hanna was marketed as a reasonably conventional thriller. Fortunately, it turned out to be anything but conventional.

The title character is a specially-bred 16-year-old assassin, played by the excellent Saoirse Ronan, who has spent her entire life being trained by her father, Erik (Eric Bana), in a northern European forest. She has no experience of the outside world, knowing only what Erik has taught her, namely some impressive combat skills, verbatim encyclopedic facts, just about every language in existence, and a smattering of the Brothers Grimm. A rather drawn out opening sequence at the forest hideout establishes Hanna’s skills and character, and we learn something about her relationship with Erik. She then decides that she is ready to go out into the world, but not without first assassinating Marissa Wiegler (Cate Blanchett), the villain of the piece.

The first scene of genuine interest involves Hanna’s escape from a holding facility, which looks like a combination of Area 51 and the headquarters of a Bond villain. The score is by The Chemical Brothers, and you get the impression that the action sequences were written more for the music than the other way around. The escape scene is highly-stylised industrial grandeur, all metal ducts and looming grey blocks. Later, Erik fights a group of government assassins in a garish orange room and there is another excellent scene at a cargo dock. All could conceivably be expensive music videos. Hanna is worth seeing for the score alone.

Hanna combines splendidly over-the-top visuals with The Chemical Brothers’ block rockin’ beats

The holding facility from which she escapes turns out to be in Morocco, and there she is forced to adapt to the real world, whether this involves bonding with a holidaying family or adapting to the horrors of modern technology via a somewhat slapstick panic attack. Around this stage, I was losing patience with the film. Despite some impressive acting and cinematography, it gets rather messy. The tone shifts so frequently that you don’t know where you stand. It moves too casually between being a serious thriller, a kitsch action film and a coming of age tale. Nothing seems to be holding it together.

Surprisingly, it achieves cohesion through a combination of fairy tale elements and surrealism. The more implausible moments, such as Hanna skipping through a campsite with her new best friend, right under the noses of her pursuers, gradually make sense. Her innocence and relationship with the world become more meaningful. Cate Blanchett really comes into her own as her character is transformed from government conspirator to Big Bad Wolf, and Tom Hollander gives a fantastic against-type performance as the perverse assassin Isaacs.

The more absurd Hanna gets, the stronger it gets, and by the time the characters converge on Wilhelm Grimm’s house, an abandoned amusement park, it is very entertaining indeed. As when you enter the houses in the fairy tales, things quickly take a turn for the worse. The conclusion is menacing and very surreal. At one point I thought Marissa had turned into a deer. Why shouldn’t she have?

Hanna would have been a better film if it had kept this kind of tone from the beginning. The first hour or so only works in retrospect. The inconsistency undermines the strong acting, visuals and especially the soundtrack. But once it gets past the silliness of taking itself seriously, it becomes a very watchable fairy tale thriller.

Rob Dickie

Hobo with a Shotgun

Director: Jason Eisener
Writer: John Davies
Year: 2011
Cast: Rutger Hauer, Molly Dunsworth, Brian Downey

★★☆☆☆

If nothing else, Hobo with a Shotgun delivers what it promises, and delivers it by the bucket load. Like last year’s Machete, it is based on a trailer produced for the Tarantino/Rodriguez homage Grindhouse. In comparison, however, Machete is grindhouse for the masses.

The look of the film grabs you immediately, everything is washed over with an exaggerated garish Technicolor. Then, revelling in its own theatricality, it dives straight into an obscenely over-the-top execution in which the bad guys are introduced, Drake (Brian Downey) and his preppy but psychotic sons Slick (Gregory Smith) and Ivan (“Introducing” Nick Bateman). A woman dances in a shower of blood spurting from the victim’s neck, she licks it seductively from her fingers. It sets the tone.

There is plenty of gore on show, and it is well done. It’s excessive but we expect nothing else. Jason Eisener pulls out all the stops. There are too many examples to list, but there is one fabulous sequence which involves someone being stabbed with the jagged bone from a cut-off forearm. Other positives include a great eighties-style soundtrack, continuity issues galore and several nods to old-school horror flicks, notably Peter Jackson’s Braindead towards the end.

Rutger Hauer stars as the Hobo, who in true B-movie style has to choose between a life of probably-suicidal vigilante crime-fighting or purchasing a lawnmower (both of which incidentally cost $49.99). Hauer is great in his role, striking the perfect balance between incoherence and menace – in this context, far more of the former than the latter. The obligatory hooker is played by Molly Dunsworth, who also does exactly what the film requires of her.

The film is good fun, but never quite enough fun to justify not giving the audience anything more coherent. Disappointingly, there are few great lines, and the dialogue is fairly weak, even bearing in mind its tongue-in-cheek intention. I am undecided on The Plague (The Plague are some kind of medievally-clad demons, who are apparently impossible to kill unless you have a lawnmower handy). There are memorable moments, such as when the Hobo delivers a soliloquy to screaming infants in a hospital, but for the most part it is forgettable.

Hobo with a Shotgun revels in its excess. It is a more sincere attempt than Machete to create a homage to grindhouse cinema, but is perhaps less successful for it. Homages are difficult to do well, because they aren’t trying to do anything except recreate. They have nothing really to say. The great grindhouse films did, however crudely they put it.

Rob Dickie