Mark Wahlberg and Ben Foster work the finer parts of the smuggle in "Contraband."
The gritty style only accentuates the increasingly far-fetched dramatics in "Contraband," an involving, atmospherically grungy mid-register thriller. The central device of a retired criminal being forced back into the game for a final job is recycled from countless previous films and TV shows, while some key climactic developments feel variously forced and/or simplistically achieved. But the lead role of a working-class former smuggler who dirties his hands again to save his family fits Mark Wahlberg like a glove and there's enough punch and rough stuff here to make this Universal release a moderate success domestically and better than that overseas.
A life based on ill-gotten gains is par for the course for the Farraday clan; while old Pop stews in the slammer, son Chris (Wahlberg) remains a legend even though he now runs an alarm installation company and his dimwit brother-in-law Andy (Caleb Landry Jones) triggers the new round of trouble by dumping a bunch of drugs into the sea just as he's about to be nailed on a cargo ship. There are so many Irish mugs running around here you'd think we're in Boston but it's actually New Orleans, a major port for all manner of substances coming in from Latin America.
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Unfortunately, the lost stash was intended for Tim Briggs, a crazed, trigger-happy lunatic played by Giovanni Ribisi in such a wigged-out manner that it suggests the actor is advertising himself for any role (if there is any) Nicolas Cage declines. Briggs demands instant satisfaction for the debt, so threateningly so that Chris realizes he has no choice but to pull a job himself, and quick.
This one, too, will involve a smuggling operation aboard a transport ship, this one bound for Panama, where Chris arranges to pick up a massive amount of counterfeit American currency. With best pal Danny (Lukas Haas) and the questionable Andy, whose older sister Kate (Kate Beckinsale) is Chris's wife, the old pro signs on to a vessel commanded by a stern captain (an amusing J.K. Simmons) with less than sweet feelings for Chris's notorious dad. With help of old accomplices, Chris sets everything in place for the return trip, which will involve hiding the sheets of counterfeit bills from the captain as well as from customs authorities.
Panama is seldom seen in major films, so sequences featuring the canal, the soaring new skyline and reeking slums impart welcome color and visual interest. It is also here, however, where the plotting of first-time screenwriter Aaron Guzikowski and the sequence timing worked out by director Baltasar Kormakur get more than a little hairy, not to mention overly convenient. After a meeting with a drug lord (Diego Luna) goes awry, the Americans' escape seems unconvincingly easy, just as the motivating incident is outlandishly coincidental. On top of it all, what Chris pulls off ashore is far too involved to have fit into the very short period of time before the ship is due to sail again; a sense of urgency is one thing, but winding the clock too tightly can break the spring, which more or less happens here.
Back home, more dramaturgic problems await, as old ghosts come back to haunt Chris's best friend Sebastian (Ben Foster), who's supposed to be looking after his pal's wife and two boys but does so in a way that would tick off most husbands.
VIDEO: Mark Wahlberg Plays a Father on a Mission in 'Contraband' Trailer
"Contraband" is based on a little-seen 2008 Icelandic suspenser called "Reykjavik-Rotterdam" written by Arnaldur Indridason and Oskar Jonasson, directed by the latter and produced by and starring Kormakur, whose debut feature, the madly original "Reykjavik 101," arguably remains his best film. Despite the Gulf of Mexico settings, the new film, which is largely set at night, retains a certain Nordic gloom; the visual scheme worked out with cinematographer Barry Ackroyd is dominated by glum grays and blues, although the camerawork remains alert and alive to the alarming events that punctuate the characters' lives with all-too-frequent regularity.
Kormakur's unvarnished style on the one hand comes as a welcome change from both the slicker Hollywood norm and the more mannered antics of some young directors. At the same time, however, the images' grubby honesty not only keep the film's temperature on the low side, but also make the overt manipulations of the story appear even more artificial than they might have otherwise. Kormakur set out to make a thriller with a semblance of a real-life backdrop and succeeded up to a point, but the grit and pulp are like oil and water here.
Conveying Chris's family commitment and professional toughness with equal conviction, Wahlberg provides the film with a solid center. Looney is in full supply thanks not only to Ribisi but to Foster, Luna and Jones, while Beckinsale, her innate classiness calibrated down a few notches, has little to do but be supportive, worried and, eventually, besieged. In just three scenes, William Lucking, as Chris's father, creates an indelible picture of a defeated but still cagey old school Irish-American crime.
Mark Wahlberg is a former smuggler gone straight, but financial problems and a growing family lead him to return to his old ways, with the promise of a final big payoff. Opens Jan. 13.
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