Movie Review: Mark Wahlberg and Gritty Thrills Bolster CONTRABAND

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Mark Wahlberg might be the best bad actor currently working in movies.  There’s something so fascinatingly off-tempo about him: he tries to play smart (The Truth about Charlie), and his stilted, uncertain line readings give him away.  He tries to play tough (Shooter), except his soft voice and modest frame instantly feminize him.  Then he tries to play sensitive (The Lovely Bones), and even that doesn’t work; it’s that bruiser’s gaze of his, the one that never quite buys what you’re selling.  Still, for all those shortcomings, he never comes off as anything less than 100% earnest in his work—yes, even in his (many) bad movies—there’s an honesty of intention.  As a result, Wahlberg is only effective playing an extremely limited range of characters, but give him the right part, and you can’t imagine anyone better.  I can’t explain how the good ones do it (The Fighter, Boogie Nights, The Departed, Four Brothers, The Other Guys, I Heart Huckabee’s), but they synthesize all his contradictory elements into a satisfying whole.

Chalk his Chris Farraday from the crime-thriller Contraband in the “win” column.  Contraband may be a B-programmer through and through, but it’s far more engaging and involving than its generic DTV-style trailers suggested, and a big part of why the picture works is that writer Aaron Guzikowski and director Baltasar Kormákur utilize Wahlberg so well (better than screen masters like Jonathan Demme and Peter Jackson did, in fact).

The setup reeks of shameless starf—kery: once the world’s greatest overseas goods smuggler (because one can qualify such an occupation, apparently), Farraday finds himself forced to re-enter the life in order to clear his brother-in-law’s debt with a psychotic drug dealer (Giovanni Ribisi, delightfully hammy).  The smuggling wrinkle is a nice touch, but you’ve seen this movie before, though perhaps not as nakedly calculated to fit Wahlberg’s desired tough-guy image as this one is (no b.s., whip-smart, yet also deeply moral.  See also: The Big Hit, Max Payne).

From the jump, however, you buy Farraday because he remains pleasantly grounded.  Wahlberg’s post-criminal life isn’t too squalid, isn’t too flush (if Kate Beckinsale’s glamorous wife beggars belief, Farraday’s modest security business brings him back to Earth), and his big action moments play out more as unrehearsed explosions of frustration rather than movie-star cool—it helps that Kormákur surrounds Wahlberg with reedy low-lifes like Ribisi and Diego Luna instead of more physically imposing threats.

Best of all, his venerated smuggling prowess diminishes somewhat when we see how low-rent the job really is.  One of Contraband‘s hidden pleasures is that outside of a frenzied midpoint gunfight, it’s really more of a bullets-and-blood-free heist movie, but it couldn’t be further from an Ocean’s Eleven or a The Sting: things are grimy and unattractive, with Wahlberg’s crew getting a blue-collar shot of realism from non-pretty actors like Lukas Haas, Ben Foster, Caleb Landry Jones, Ólafur Darri Ólafsson, and Lucky Johnson.  I love how jerry-rigged Farraday’s whole operation is; movies like this so often toss out complicated cloak-and-dagger shenanigans that it was pleasantly jarring to watch the crew running through low-tech machinations like draining a ship’s oil supply to buy a few hours of extra time or paying off a dock worker to forge a customs check on a tampered shipping crate.

You understand what a skin-of-its-teeth gig this is, and the whole situation plays to Wahlberg’s performing strengths: instinctive, committed, slightly desperate.  If nothing else, it’s a corrective to his glossily ridiculous Italian Job remake.

I don’t want to gush too much.  Contraband will always be a B-movie; it’s not some secret masterpiece like They Live by Night or Wahlberg’s own The Yards.  But there’s something to be said for unpretentious, unassuming craftsmanship, and the film has that in spades.  Guzikowski’s script goes easy on the exposition while letting the actors tease out otherwise-invisible character details (Ben Foster practically turns a nothing part into the heart of the film with his hangdog expressions and inner depths), and Kormákur keeps the proceedings fleet and gritty, using Academy Award-nominated cinematographer Barry Ackroyd (The Hurt Locker) to find the visceral poetry in Contraband‘s New Orleans and Panamanian locations.  I wish the studios didn’t feel the need to add a prerequisite love interest subplot to tough-minded thrillers like this one (the otherwise enjoyable Safe House suffered from the same problem), though Kate Beckinsale’s scenes don’t grind the proceedings to a halt as much as they could, and Kormákur more-than compensates with his central heist staging, which—for a change!—lets Wahlberg’s shoddy plans fall apart, forcing him and his team to improvise madly.

The heist gives Contraband more spark than it would normally deserve.  So does Mark Wahlberg, and kudos to the film for getting both elements so right.

Universal’s Blu-ray accurately reflects the feature’s rough visual palette; Ackroyd and Kormákur pushed their digital camera to deliver film-like texture, and it’s an appealing look.  The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track is very satisfying and very bombastic—the film’s lone gunfight just roars.

The supplements are the only disappointing elements.  There isn’t much of substance: an enervating commentary with Kormákur and producer Evan Hayes; six minutes of rightly cut deleted scenes; and two fluffy behind-the-scenes featurettes: Under the Radar and Reality Factor: The Stunts and Action of Contraband.  All are well produced, but they don’t go into much detail.

Not that it matters.  Contraband is a zippy little thriller with a terrific Mark Wahlberg performance and enough twists to elevate it above its B-movie origins; there’s something to be said for high-quality pulp like this movie.  The Blu-ray looks and sounds great, and though the features underwhelm, nothing about Contraband screams, “You need to delve behind-the-scenes!”

Contraband streets on April 24th.  Click HERE for Amazon’s listing.

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