Friday, January 13, 2012

A Lot Of Dumb Fun: Contraband

This review originally appeared on the San Francisco Appeal.

Let me start with the bad news: Contraband is a crime thriller starring Mark Wahlberg, in which Wahlberg neither walks around shirtless, nor talks to animals.

But despite those deficits, the movie's still pretty good. (Of course, this is January, a notorious month for movie dumping, so "good" is relative.)

Wahlberg stars as Chris Farraday, a former smuggler--of goods, not drugs--who has gone legit in his hometown of New Orleans, now running a home security business. He's living a life of suburban comfort across the river in Algiers, with his wife Kate, (Kate Beckinsale), and their two young sons.

But when Kate's none-too-bright little brother, (Caleb Landry Jones), screws up a smuggling job of his own, Farraday steps in to help pay off the debt to scummy drug dealer Tim Brigss, (Giovanni Ribisi, whose Mephistopheles goatee is almost as ridiculous as his "New Orleans" accent).

With the help of his best friend, and former smuggling partner, Sebastian, (Ben Foster), Farraday puts together a crew and boards a cargo ship to Pananma, (Captained by J.K. Simmons), in order to pull off One Last Job, and pay of his brother-in-law's debt.

All of this is fairly standard heist film fodder, but director Baltasar Kormákur--who starred in, but did not direct, the original Icelandic film this is based on--manages to keep the story moving along at a brisk pace, complete with shoot-outs, chase scenes, and some third act twists.

Those are the things standard to a movie like this. But what Kormákur does differently is what will either make you like the movie, or hate it.

Everything you know about the characters comes from what they say or do in the present. Aside from some brief talk between Farraday and Sebastian at the beginning of the movie, in which they talk about how they smuggled a Ferrari into the country, a job that helped earn them the title of "the Lennon and McCartney" of smuggling, you don't know much about what they did, when they did it, or how they did it. There's no requisite flashback sequence filling the audience in on any of it.

So, when Farraday finds himself in Panama on that final job, you really have no idea if he's going to be a ruthless guy, or someone who just wants to get a job done as cleanly and quickly as possible, at all cost. Is he a nice smuggler? Is there such a thing?

Back in the states, his best friend Sebastian is placed in charge of protecting his wife and kids, but, once again, because we don't know that much about this guy to begin with, what we eventually do learn ends up being much more surprising because of that.

Unfortunately, the place this kind of shallow character creation doesn't work is with the character of Kate, Farraday's wife. Kate Beckinsale does her best to give some balls to a character who is really not much more than a Thing That Must Be Protected, but ultimately she's a victim and not much else.

The film's got what one wants from an action flick starring Mark Wahlberg: ass-kicking; questionable morality; that thing he does where his voice gets higher the angrier he gets; plus it's got the added bonus of an inexplicable--and hilarious--inclusion of a Jackson Pollock painting. So even without the presence of animals or naked abs, Contraband is a lot of dumb fun.

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