Wahlberg Delivers in 'Contraband'
Glenn Kenny, Special to MSN Movies
Mark Wahlberg generally brings a terse, direct credibility to his work in action pictures. But that gets him only so far when he doesn't have credible ... OK, maybe "credible" is too much to ask these days, so let's say entertaining, material to work with. While the jumping-off point for the New Orleans-set "Contraband," his latest action movie, is as hackneyed as hackneyed gets (it's the one about the old pro who's gone straight and just when he thinks he's out they pull him back in again, rinse, lather, repeat), it piles on complications and veers in new directions with such impressive dispatch that it more often than not sweeps the viewer past a bunch of plausibility checkpoints with no concerns save how the hero's gonna get out of his next nasty jam. It's a good, chugging caper movie for the most part.
Wahlberg and Ben Foster play Chris and Seb, best pals who, a supporting character helpfully informs the audience early on, were once "the Lennon and McCartney of smuggling," an odd image. These days Chris is an alarms-systems guy, Seb's in construction, but Chris' brother-in-law Andy (Caleb Landry Jones) is in trouble with drug-dealing skeezoid Tim Briggs (played with baroque spicy-Cajun relish by Giovanni Ribisi). This, Chris explains to wife Kate (Kate Beckinsale), obliges Chris to get back in the smuggling game one more time, so he hops a container ship to Panama, puts together an ad hoc gang/crew, and endeavors to pick up some fake paper, because, as he can't emphasize enough, he won't move drugs.
However, certain interests in the States very much want him to move drugs, and the twists and turns Chris encounters along his fevered, engrossing way saddle him with not just counterfeit money and real narcotics, but some canvas that ends up being one of the film's more inspired jests. And the human obstacles Chris meets along the way, including J.K. Simmons as a ship captain who's less than thrilled to renew his acquaintance with Chris, and Diego Luna as an old underworld contact who's gone extremely loco, are pretty diverting too. And all the while poor Kate's at home with the kids being menaced by Briggs and not quite knowing whom to trust. (One understands better Beckinsale's eagerness to participate in the not-very-good "Underworld" films, as at least those story lines give her real things to do.)
Wahlberg, who is one of the producers of the film, apparently picked out the source material, an Icelandic thriller called "Reykjavik-Rotterdam," and imported its director, Baltasar Kormakúr (who scored an eccentric art-house almost-hit here with "101 Reykjavik" back in 2000), to oversee this film. Kormakúr doesn't overdo the stroboscopic cutting on the big action scenes, but some of them are still relatively insane, but pretty fleet. His most annoying tic, really, is the predetermined faux-handheld zoom/jiggle that usually accompanies a gloppy close-up of someone with really unappealing skin. I think this is what's supposed to signify "realism" in these kinds of pictures nowadays. In any event, it isn't too terribly annoying. And near the climax, the film takes a dark turn that had me saying, "Well, that's pretty nervy," only to take it back, as sure as the sun sets.
While I was disappointed at the lack of resolve, I was also heartened, because as a budding old-school fellow, I think some genre conventions ought to be respected. In any event, while no groundbreaker, "Contraband" is a pretty fair achievement on the Wahlberg genre scale: not as good as "The Departed," but way better (and showing far more integrity) than "The Shooter." Almost in a league with "The Italian Job," even.
Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and websites, and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com. He lives in Brooklyn.