You’ve seen the proverbial “one last job” movie dozens of times before under different titles. For a big-studio release in Januaryâ€”ya know, the disreputable dumping month where movies go to dieâ€””Contraband” is an overly familiar genre programmer, but more slick and entertaining than it has any business being if one’s expectations are low. Nearly recommending mediocrity sounds like faint praise, but just don’t expect the film to be about anything more than what it’s about.
Chris Farraday (Mark Wahlberg) is a retired smuggler who’s now on the straight-and-arrow. He’s abandoned the crime life to settle down with his wife, Kate (Kate Beckinsale), and their two sons in Algiers, New Orleans, while running his own alarm-system business. But he’s forced back into action when his screw-up brother-in-law, Andy (Caleb Landry Jones), fumbles a drug deal and is then hospitalized. A shipment of drugs has been dumped rather than delivered to tattooed gangster Tim Briggs (Giovanni Ribisi). Chris doesn’t want to do another run, but it’s family. So he and his team of confederate pros, including Chris’s newlywedded right-hand man Danny (Lukas Haas), board a cargo ship to Panama City and plan to smuggle a palate of counterfeit bills back into the states to pay back Briggs. Kate and the boys are left in the hands of his pal Sebastian (Ben Foster), and that’s where Briggs gets his revenge. Everything that could go wrong does.
Director Baltasar KormÃ¡kur efficiently assumes the helm for this U.S. remake of a 2008 Icelandic thriller, “Reykajavik-Rotterdam” (which starred KormÃ¡kur). He creates a gritty, rough-edged world that extracts the script’s absurdity and diverts from some of the familiarity. Like so many pulpy action thrillers in this day and age, this one is mostly shot with a hand-held style by cinematographer Barry Ackroyd (who won an Oscar for 2008’s “The Hurt Locker”) but never incoherently. The first half-hour makes for a slow setup, but between the wrenches in Chris’s elaborate caper and Chris’s family being put into jeopardy, the stakes keep rising. In the film’s midsection, the robbery on the ship generates some suspense, and the scenes where Chris and Danny try beating the clock in an armored car are excitingly staged and fun to watch. Their theft of a Jackson Pollock painting, which none of the thieves recognize except as “a cloth with oil smears,” is an amusing touch. Some of the family-in-peril stuff with Kate constantly being terrorized and smacked around verges on dreary exploitation, but it still escalates with tension.
Working from a screenplay by tyro writer Aaron Guzikowski, an ensemble this solid and talented is better than the film deserves. Wahlberg has given some terrific performances in the past, starting with 1997’s “Boogie Nights” and continuing with 2006’s “The Departed.” Then he did some interestingly offbeat work in 2004’s “I Heart Huckabees,” but gave a wooden, unintentionally funny performance in 2008’s “The Happening.” Here, he’s sleepwalking, performing with his usual blue-collar swagger. Finding his niche in playing wound-up loose cannons, a greasy, scarily over-the-top Ribisi skeezes up his role of Briggs as much as possible. It’s a mannered performance, but his weaselly characters are always a hoot to watch. Character actor Foster always livens up standard material, here playing the conflicted Sebastian. J.K. Simmons plays it amusingly straight as a crusty sea captain of the ship Chris’s convict father (William Lucking) used to run contraband. Beckinsale tries her best with the most thankless role of Concerned Wife, which is simply a plot device as Kate becomes the pawn in the heavy’s schemes.
Though the plotting gets a little convoluted and throws in a few twists you’ll see coming, “Contraband” remains pretty absorbing. There’s little character beyond the surface, although a few are a tiny bit more varied than mere shady types. Part of the script’s problem is inherent with the action genre, in which there are few characters to root for: Everyone’s so sleazy, unpleasant, and involved with shady dealings that even Chris walks a thin line between family man and smuggler.
With it being a month of the doldrums, “Contraband” is typical “does what it sets out to do” fare that should do for the start of the year, even if you forget about it by February. It’s neither here nor there, but it’s otherwise decent when delivering no-frills B-movie thrills.
109 min., rated R.
Grade: C +