Contraband (2012) – Baltasar Kormákur

Contraband wants to work on the level of Apollo 13 (1995), which sets up the problem our hero must work against then spends the rest of the movie making the problem more and more complicated. The problem is that Contraband doesn’t share Apollo 13’s clear storytelling. For a while it maintains a similar energy but it can’t sustain it and falls apart.

The movie is about an ex-smuggler in New Orleans, Chris (Mark Wahlberg), the best there ever was, but he’s straight now and has a wife, Kate (Kate Beckinsale), and two kids. Unfortunately, Kate has a brother who is not as good of a criminal, and he’s forced to dump a shipment he owes to a dirtbag named Briggs (Giovanni Ribisi, continuing his second career playing lowlifes with funny voices). When Briggs starts threatening Kate’s brother and then Kate and Chris’s children, Chris is forced out of retirement to run one more job. This set-up is pretty tired but the actors give it a little oomph, particularly Walhberg’s trademark intensity and Ribisi’s oily scuzziness.

Chris cooks up a scheme to smuggle in counterfeit money from Panama by stowing away on a barge and impersonating a crew member. It’s during this section that the movie builds the most steam. The plan goes haywire in a number of ways, and the resourceful Chris is undercut by incompetence on his team and unknown turncoats in his inner circle. The movie easily sets up what is supposed to happen—there’s a large cell hidden behind a panel in the bowels of the ship where Chris will hide the loot—and then it relishes throwing flies in the ointment. First, the counterfeit money is no good, it’s printed on the wrong type of paper, then Chris finds himself forced into hijacking an armored car to get the right counterfeit dough.

That doesn’t go right and a massive shootout with the Panama SWAT team ensues. All under the pressure of a boat that’s ready to leave for New Orleans without Chris and a gangster back home coiling tighter and tighter around his family. Most of it’s ludicrous, but director Baltasar Kormákur is hoping we don’t notice enough to care, and during this extended second act in which Chris tries to organize the bad money and get on the boat, we don’t.

However, this stretch ends up being the high point and it’s not all that high to begin with. The story is convoluted; there are too many people who are double and triple crossing each other because they owe money to too many other people so our interest fizzles pretty quickly. The movie would be better served sticking with Chris’s journey back to New Orleans under the gaze of the suspicious boat captain played by J.K. Simmons, but it doesn’t develop that. Instead it gets bogged down trying to exploit Beckinsale’s damsel in distress, which gets pretty gratuitous but never truly tense, because the screenplay devoted more thought to the ways of terrorizing her than it did to making her a character.

I was as shocked as anyone to discover that Mark Wahlberg is one of our finest actors, but I’ve seen three of his movies in a week coincidently and he was the most interesting part of all of them, and one of them included a living teddy bear. I’m getting tired of coming up with new variations on “Wahlberg’s admirable earnestness is mainly wasted … .” I think he may suffer from the same ailment that infects Nicolas Cage, a tireless devotion to bringing his all to a project but a pitiful ability to recognize a good script. Still, Wahlberg can sell anything and you believe every word he says; it’s not an ability that everybody has.  

Contraband is a little better than the middle of the road but just a little. It’s steadily made by Kormákur who starred in the Icelandic movie that inspired this one. There’s nothing here that hasn’t been done better somewhere else, but I enjoyed Diego Luna’s crazed counterfeiter and the gleeful complications that stack up against Chris, but that section represents less than 40% of the movie. When it’s content to be by-the-numbers action nonsense, it comes close to rising above itself, but it lacks Wahlbergian focus and tries to bring in too many elements that it isn’t skilled enough to handle. What results isn’t a ruined evening but not a particularly memorable one.

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