Chris Farraday, the protagonist of “Contraband,” is a popular movie construct. Handsome, wide-shouldered, and with a movie-star smile, he’s tough enough to have done some Very Bad Things, but also principled enough to be retired by the time we meet him. Chris is an ex-drug smuggler, and the life doesn’t seem to have done much for him. Clad in form-fitting jeans and tee-shirts, he still hangs out at the same ratty bars with his low-life former criminal acquaintances. It’s a character as walking, talking movie shorthand: we know what he was, what he is, and, likely, what he’ll have to become again.
Chris has a rude awakening from his family life as they predictably bleed into each other. In this specific case, his young screw-up brother-in-law Andy botched a drop-off, earning the ire of Chris’ runt-ish former colleague Tim. Tim wants repayment, not only for the missing goods, but also in the proverbial pound of flesh, terrifying the apple-cheeked youngster. Chris feels the brunt of this: his new middle class lifestyle as a security alarm expert is now in danger because of a family member he refers to as a “little shit.”
To assuage Tim, Chris hatches an elaborate plan to abscond to Panama, returning with counterfeit money before his wife and kids become victims. All the while, drugs loom, as both a mark of the past and, naturally, as the most attractive resource Chris’ gang has, despite his moral opposition towards pushing that type of product. It’s only when a tight plan unravels thanks to more than a few unpredictable developments that Chris needs to reach into those memory banks to recover senses both business and survival-related.
“Contraband” is a remake of an Icelandic crime film, “Reykjavik-Rotterdam,” though it’s directed by the producer and star of the original picture Baltasar Kormakur. And yet, “Contraband,” with its mock-sleaze and sometimes non-stop action, feels distinctly American in its storytelling, economical to the point of it almost resembling a greatest-hits package. As a result, Mark Wahlberg brings a lot of natural empathy and star presence to Chris Farraday, but he’s more of a typical audience Rorshach blot than an actual person. During one tense heist, Andy chides him for being so anti-smuggling by remarking that he “loves this.” Wahlberg’s response is that million dollar smile and a sly, “Don’t tell your sister.” Nevermind the fact that this is the first time we’ve seen Chris smile the entire movie – it’s as if WE are meant to be acknowledging that yes, WE love this.
Whatever interest Kormakur fakes in human beings (Chris’ children have few, if any, lines, and seem to only have interest in soccer), he siphons towards the action sequences. No shots in “Contraband” are as loving as the ricochet marks on walls, or the sight of metal being pierced by bullets. He lingers on the latter visual during one particularly hectic shoot-out, confusing our rooting interests – we want our heroes to survive, but don’t neglect that collateral damage. The only character visibly troubled by the pile of dead bodies, some of them innocent, is Chris’ gangly, boyish associate Danny (Lukas Haas), who jumps and frets as mad masked Latin American crime lord Gonzalo (a ridiculous Diego Luna) shoots up an entire fleet of cops. Naturally, once Danny serves the narrative, we don’t hear from him again.
As the theoretically-threatening Tim, Giovanni Ribisi piles on the actorly mannerisms, but given the last few years of his career, this is one of his less-convincing tough guy roles. Amusingly, his dynamic appears to be threatening Wahlberg, only for the former Funky Bunch member to respond with fists, throwing him down stairs and pulling him from cars. It’s only because of Chris’ honor (or sense of humor?) that Tim remains a threat: during one moment when Tim suggests he’ll pursue Chris’ family, Wahlberg gets the jump on his much smaller co-star, shoving a barrel into Ribisi’s nose viciously, but diplomatically agreeing to the terms of said threat. Only in the movies.
Chris’ best buddy Sebastian, who protects his family while he’s away, is played by the always unpredictable Ben Foster. Given a whisp of a character, Foster really sells the few scenes he has as the only character in the film forced to make a genuinely tough decision or two, continuing a streak of generally being much better and more compelling than his material. Meanwhile, Kate Beckinsale is convincing not as a suburban mother so much as a Punching Bag. It’s 2012, and it’s supposed to be progress when beautiful actresses like Beckinsale aren’t forced to be a piece of meat, but can be tortured, threatened and punched repeatedly.
You can shoot all the action in the world, but it won’t matter a lick if you don’t care about people. Kormakur mostly blows it by the constant strategy of beginning scenes with establishing shots before immediately shifting to ugly mid-range close-ups. With this technique, Kormakur is cutting off hands and legs, losing the body language that defines the tenuous relationships between these tough guys, reducing them all to the same action movie figurines. The most intriguing character detail appears early in “Contraband,” where we see both Chris and Sebastian at an AA meeting together. Sebastian reluctantly stands and begins to tell his story when the film cuts away. Why bother, Kormakur suggests. There’s metal walls waiting to be punctured. [C-]