Editor’s Note: Go,See,Talk presents this review of Contraband our guest contributing writer Bill Graham. Have a look at what he had to say about this Mark Wahlberg actioner and offer your thoughts below.
Heist films typically come down to how the protagonists will pull it off. Rarely is there drama about if they will succeed. Which means the idea behind the heist has to be intelligent enough to stand on its own. Everything before and after is just noise in the case of Contraband. Violent and dumb, this material is elevated to passable entertainment because of the actors within. Mark Wahlberg, J.K. Simmons, Kate Beckinsale, Giovanni Ribisi, and Ben Foster pepper the film with their strong presence and it’s rare to see a frame without one of these five thespians staking their claim on the film as if it is some tropical island up for grabs. Foster and Ribisi are the ones that truly make their mark, as one is a sure-fire polarizer while the other has a slurred accent that I seem to be the only fan of. I should mention that this isn’t your average heist film. You see, Wahlberg and
Foster are former expert smugglers which changes the game a bit because they are not trying to break into something but simply transport it. That small wrinkle adds enough flair to make things interesting, but it takes quite a while to set it up.
Chris (Wahlberg) and Sebastian (Foster) are living a quiet, legit life after getting out of the smuggling trade. Chris has settled down with wife Kate (Beckinsale) and has two kids. Unfortunately, his wife also came with her family, and his screw-up brother-in-law Andy (Caleb Landry Jones) has put his whole existence at risk after a botched job. When he tries to clear things with the snaky new crime boss Tim Briggs (Ribisi) he gets a no thank you. Left with few options, he decides to make one last run into Panama City on a huge cargo liner where they will buy into counterfeit dollars to make a lot of dough fast. Of course, nothing goes as smoothly as they hope. Meanwhile, he gets pressure from back home when his wife and children are threatened by Briggs until Sebastian comes to the rescue and makes sure they are safe. The stakes are high and time is never on their side. Yet, Chris can’t help but have a smile on his fast. Andy tells him to not deny that he loves it. “Is it that obvious? Well, don’t tell my wife.” Question is whether he will be smiling when it’s all over.
Contraband is directed by Baltasar Kormákur who happens to be the former star of Reykjavík-Rotterdam, the Icelandic film that this is based on. Let it be known that while it might seem this is the classic case of the actor who thinks he can direct, Kormákur has more credits as a director. Of course, that doesn’t mean he can actually direct well. The film exists as a showcase of good ideas mixed in with Hollywood conventionalism. Where there could have been a slick film with a tragic ending, they go for something more mundane. The film has a lot of grit and harsh treatment of the characters, yet it never goes beyond what you might expect. Contraband feels dangerous but it’s all bark and no bite.
There are some odd moments that could have been rectified with a few script tweaks. When Chris gets off the boat he has an hour of time to get his goods and board the ship. When something goes awry, he starts spit balling and manages to find himself in a heist and a shootout over a tarp—wait, no, a Jackson Pollock painting. I’m no expert on time, but it takes me nearly an hour to get ready in the morning and arrive at work on time. How he manages to squeeze all these misadventures in such a limited time is beyond me. Yea, logic shouldn’t be thrown at everything you see in a film, but it’s just an obvious example of where some tweaks where they creatively leave out what kind of timetable he has would be helpful.
While the acting is mostly at the level you expect, I quite enjoyed Ribisi’s sneering, odd accent and found his look menacing enough to strike fear in people he could push around. He doesn’t scare Chris though, who outright throws him around to comical effect a few times. Briggs doesn’t always have his muscle around but he is ruthless in getting his way and shows this with his mishandling of Kate at times. Again, though, it is Foster that does the real heavy lifting, creating an extra dimension none of the other characters have. Whether that’s his touch or the script by Aaron Guzikowski is unclear, but it works.
There’s a lot to keep track of in this 109 minute heist flick. The family back on shore and the friends on the boat who sign up for one last gig. J.K. Simmons plays the captain of the boat that has a sneaking suspicion Chris isn’t there just for work. Of course there is the ever present threat that while Chris is away and Sebastian battles his own demons, Briggs will do irreparable harm to Kate and the kids. That’s just a sample of all the plot threads going on, and amidst all of this Chris has to pull off not one but two… smuggles? This is the kind of flick that makes you want to seek out the original to find out if they actually let the film do more than just bark.