Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Contraband (2012)

Contraband (2012)
Dir. Baltasar Kormákur

3 out of 5

There's no better example of fill-in-the-blank filmmaking than the "one last score" movie, where the bar of success is set at the rather modest level of not embarrassing oneself. By that forgiving measuring stick, the action-heist film Contraband is better than decent, a capable little thriller that re-animates an old, worn-out formula with sheer grubby energy. Poetically, the film is also a remake: Icelandic director Baltasar Kormákur originated Mark Wahlberg's leading role as a reformed ex-smuggler pressured into one more job in 2008's Reykjavik-Rotterdam. Kormákur's steady hand guides his cast through an Americanized version of the story, which sets a course from New Orleans, where Wahlberg's brother-in-law (Caleb Landry Jones) has run afoul of a Cajun crime lord (Giovanni Ribisi), to Panama City, where Wahlberg's crew hopes to secure millions in counterfeit cash aboard a container ship and pay off all their remaining debts. Sounds straightforward enough, but Kormákur is able to keep the tension high by tossing game-changer after game-changer into the mix, subtly mutating the film's admittedly generic DNA.

Wahlberg is undoubtedly Contraband's weakest link. Lacking a rogue's charisma, he has a face that registers determination as extreme irritation and often comes across as a bully instead of a hero. Yet, as if to remind us that he's the good guy, Wahlberg unfortunately relies on an excessive family-man doofiness that reappears as a frustrating motif throughout the film. Even the unhinged Ribisi gets his own adorable moppet to watch cartoons with when he isn't threatening Wahlberg's children and brutalizing his wife (Kate Beckinsale). Fortunately, the supporting cast provides more than enough ballast to keep the film afloat. Lukas Haas provides welcome comic relief as a semi-clueless accomplice and is appropriately terrified throughout a fierce gunfight at the film's midpoint. Diego Luna also has some fun as a Panamanian gangster who conducts business with a flourish, apparently convincing his men that duct tape makes a better disguise than a ski mask during a robbery. The great and intense Ben Foster also turns up in a role that alters the course of the movie, but his work is much better than his questionable character arc deserves.

You might notice that many of these folks aren't the sharpest knives in the drawer - a priceless and highly recognizable work of art is referred to more than once as "an oily rag." One of these utterances comes from J.K. Simmons, playing a wily ship captain who somehow can't detect the criminal activity occurring right under his nose. The film's dumbest sensibilities come to full fruition in its wildly preposterous ending, but at least Contraband has the good sense to give us a mostly satisfying 100 minutes before that and some halfway legitimate reasons for Wahlberg to turn into superdad instead of calling the cops. Though it never reaches the heights of other, better thrillers, Contraband nonetheless has a grimy appeal that transcends the otherwise mediocre movie at its core.

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