If you were expecting "Contraband" to be a dime-a-dozen action-thriller with all the usual elements, you would be right on the money. Though Mark Wahlberg has turned into an effective on-screen tough guy, and is here once again, Baltasar Kormákur's "Contraband" is a confused, choppy experience that takes us only through the same thrills that have been done over and over again. So basic and bland is the plot that "Contraband" often just feels like it has to be a sequel, something that is almost never a good thing.
Chris Farraday (Mark Wahlberg) has a bit of a problem. A former expert smuggler, Chris now lives a calm, legit existence that takes him far away from the criminal life he knows and loves. Or so he thought. Just when he thought he was out, his dimwit of a brother-in-law pulls him back in when he's stuck with a big bill to a local drug kingpin. Andy (Caleb Landry Jones) is a disaster, not slick enough to be a real criminal and not smart enough to realize he's not cut out for it. Chris' wife may be the beautiful Kate Beckinsale, but her family baggage is starting to take a toll.
Making matters worse is that Chris' brother-in-law owes money to the craziest drug kingpin this side of Al Pacino's Tony Montana. Briggs (Giovanni Ribisi) looks like the kind of guy who just has to be doing something very, very illegal, and the movie makes it clear from the get-go that he's the villain. Loaded up with tattoos, menacing scowls and giant leaps in logic, Briggs may not be a criminal mastermind but he isn't the type you want to owe $700,000 to. It's not like he has a whole lot else going on in his life.
Fearing the worst, Chris steps up for his brother-in-law and takes on the debt, forcing him to take desperate measures to come up with the money, and for a old smuggling shark like Chris, this means resorting back to the former life. One day Chris is installing security systems and the next day he's hunting down warlords in Panama, showing that he isn't exactly lacking in intestinal fortitude. Luckily for him, he even gets a temporary job on his old shipping freighter, where he has a loyal team of hands willing to help him at every turn. By knowing the crew already, this saves us the usually obligatory recruiting montage.
Once the elements are in place, it's pretty much full steam ahead, and Chris wastes no time in getting in standoffs with homicidal criminals and breaking more laws than can be counted. At one point, in between his smuggling exercise, he even manages to find the time to participate in a robbery of an armored car in Panama.
But being ridiculous and unrealistic isn't the main problem for "Contraband." While all the elements are in place for a gritty, hard-nosed thriller, "Contraband" doesn't spend anywhere near enough time on its characters for us to really care when it all starts hitting the fan. Just when you think that the movie is going to actually flesh out its characters with real dialog, it cuts to a never-ending array of swirling cityscape and coastline shots. The effect is that "Contraband" ends up feeling a whole lot like "C.S.I.: Miami," only with swear words and bloodier gunfights.
"Contraband" is also sorely missing a good bad guy to elevate it from the mediocre. Ribisi is a fine actor in the right role, but here he's so over-the-top in trying to be the creepy villain that it's impossible to imagine he's ever risen so far in the criminal underworld. Chris' dubious partner, Sebastian (Ben Foster), isn't much better in terms of giving Chris an interesting side character to work with, and we're left with half-baked, sentimental one-liners too absurd to be effective. I had some hopes for the always interesting J.K. Simmons as the cantankerous ship captain, but he's given such a one-dimensional character that expected tension between him and Chris just doesn't materialize.
The only bright part of the movie is that Wahlberg proves that he has a knack for playing pious tough guys not afraid to take matters into their own hands. "Contraband" is a choppy, uneven mess much of the time, yet Wahlberg has just enough humorous one-liners to keep it all from completely falling apart.
In a way, "Contraband" is exactly what thriller fans are looking for, though it's done here with such a lack of creativity or interesting characters that calling it routine would be putting it nicely. Backed by its incessant jump cuts, mere snippets of dialog and carousel of dimwitted characters, "Contraband" occasionally feels just like a slightly tamer Michael Bay film, a tiresome formula only good for blips of excitement when done without a decent story. Mark Wahlberg may look and sound like the real thing, but he needs a better movie backing him up.
by RTT Staff Writer
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