PLOT: Former smuggler Chris Farraday (Mark Wahlberg) is pulled back into the biz for one last score, after his ne'er do-well brother-in-law (Caleb Landry Jones) ends up dumping a shipment of drugs, putting him in debt to a local gangster (Giovanni Ribisi). Leaving his wife (Kate Beckinsale) in the hands of his best friend and partner, Sebastian (Ben Foster), Farraday signs up as a crew member on a merchant marine ship bound for Panama, where he hopes to smuggle back enough counterfeit-cash to square things for his family.
REVIEW: CONTRABAND is an odd-choice for the so-called January dumping ground. It's a big-budget crime caper, boasting two bonafide movie stars (Wahlberg & Beckinsale) along with a cast of strong up-and-comers, and character actors-including the great J.K Simmons, and the welcome return of Lucas Haas (WITNESS). Sure enough, CONTRABAND is indeed better than the typical January release, with it being, for the most part, a very effective crime thriller.
It's actually a remake of an Icelandic film called REYKJAVIK-ROTTERDAM, whose leading actor, Baltasar Kormakur, takes on the directorial reigns for the American remake. The premise is good, if a little worn, with everyman Wahlberg being pressed back into crime to save his family. Wahlberg's a natural playing the rough-around-the-edges hero, trying to leave his criminal past behind. I've always found he suited lower-key action flicks like this one a whole lot better than the large scale flicks he was shoehorned into a couple of years ago (with MAX PAYNE being a particularly bad one). Granted, his role as Farraday is two-dimensional for the most part, but his lower-key intensity during the action scenes serves the film well.
As his wife, Beckinsale is kinda wasted, as she's not doing much more here that playing the helpless wife in jeopardy. She's gorgeous (as always), but it's her section of the film that seems ultimately tacked on, as whenever we cut to her and Foster, we lose the momentum that's being built watching Wahlberg and his crew at work, as their job goes ridiculously awry.
This leads me to my only major problem with the film. At a relatively brick 110 minutes, CONTRABAND feels a little flabby, with it feeling like the film should have focused solely on Wahlberg's caper, rather than constant asides to his family back in New Orleans, setting up a third-act twist that's not really needed, and is more distracting than exciting. Once Walhberg's run is over, the film pretty much peters out, with Ribisi not being a particularly imposing villain (not helped by the high-pitched squeal he affects in the role). A scarier villain might have prevented the film from feeling too drawn-out, although the way that Wahlberg eventually deals with Ribisi is actually kinda ingenuous.
Still, CONTRABAND is a relatively slick thriller. Kormakur, who's directed many films in Iceland, does a great job making this into more of an old-school action thriller than we typically get nowadays. The action scenes are down-to-earth, and reasonably realistic, with only a large scale shootout during a heist in Panama employing any kind of CGI, or editing tricks. Aiding things enormously is the great shooting courtesy of THE HURT LOCKER's Barry Ackroyd, giving this a low-key, gritty look that's one of the more noteworthy aspects of the film. I also liked Clinton Shorter's dynamic musical score, which goes hand-in-hand with Ackroyd's lensing in giving this a polish that distinguishes the film more than it might have been otherwise.
To be sure, CONTRABAND is not a perfect film, but as far as crime thrillers go, it's not a bad one at all. I had a reasonably good time with it, and I'm confident that anyone looking for a good, solid (not to mention, R-rated) action flick that's not too jacked up will find plenty to like about it.