Contraband Movie Review

Although I’ve always preferred him in dramas like The Departed and Boogie Nights or comedies like The Other Guys and Date Night, Mark Wahlberg has always viewed himself, first and foremost, as a tough-guy action hero.  His latest foray into the genre is a grittier than average heist thriller that earns bonus points for some solid pacing and a few surprising wrinkles.

The film opens with on a cargo ship with Caleb Landry Jones (who played the annoying Banshee in X-Men: First Class) trying to smuggle a duffle bag of cocaine into New Orleans.  In danger of getting caught, he tosses the bag into the ocean.  This pisses off a psychotic drug lord played by the always outrageous Giovanni Ribisi, who threatens the life of the Jones character if he doesn’t come up with the drugs or a monetary equivalent.

Fortunately Jones’s brother-in-law is played by Mark Wahlberg.  He used to run drugs before turning clean and starting a home security business three years ago, but he sees no choice but to return to his roots and bring back a van full of counterfeit bills from Panama to save his wife’s little brother.  But this being a heist movie, nothing is easy and nothing goes as planned.

The film is shot using the now-commonplace handheld camera styings, but director Baltasar Kormakur, who starred in the Wahlberg role in the original Icelandic film Contraband was based on, handles it much more effectively than most.  He doesn’t overdo it to the point that we can’t figure out what the hell is going on during the firefights, and adds a paranoid voyeuristic effect when Ribisi begins lurking around Wahlberg’s wife (Kate Beckinsale) and children.

While Wahlberg is away taking care of business, his shady best friend promises to keep an eye out for his family.  I say he’s shady for no other reason than he’s played by Ben Foster and you’d have to be crazy to expect Foster to play an honorable character in a movie like this.  Even still, the supporting cast offers some nice surprises as Diego Luna (Milk) shows up as a lunatic Panamanian gangster and J.K. Simmons (Juno) plays against type as the hard ass captain who doesn’t care what kind of business takes place on his ship as long as he gets his cut.

The film offers a raw, realistic appeal missing from recent genre entries like the glossy Takers or Armored and the heist sequences feel like some real thought went into them.  Only a few failed attempts at humor (Wahlberg at one point proclaims “you’ve got a lot of pussy in there” when his dealer opens the door of his cat-infested apartment) break up the tension.

All in all, Contraband works as a perfectly enjoyable January thriller.  You just have to wonder why Wahlberg (also credited as a producer) uses his celebrity to get projects like these off the ground when his character is the least memorable of the bunch.  The impressive resume he has built over the past 15 years shows he has far more to offer than pecs-and-biceps stars like Vin Diesel or Jason Statham, even if films like this and Max Payne make him seem hellbent on putting himself in their league.

Grade:  B-

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