Indisputably Hollywood’s Teflon man, Mark Wahlberg continues to walk a fine line between wholesale laughing stock and national treasure, his signature turn as a principled, put upon, blue collar Joe with street smarts having by now placed him on speed dial for every producer with middle-of-the-road genre picture desperately seeking a hero. Virtually unknown outside the festival circuit Icelandic actor/director Baltasar Kormakur – who played Walhberg’s role in the Icelandic original on which this is based – isn’t entirely out of his depth with this much more showy transatlantic translation, but struggles to break free of his arthouse tendencies. Here Kromakur employs a fractured structure to the narrative that would be far more effective if applied to a script possessing of real substance, of which Contraband, unfortunately, has very little.
Wahlberg plays Chris Farraday, an ex-crook gone straight, who, along with his best friend Sebastian (Foster), were “the Lennon and McCartney of smugglers.” When his dumb-kid brother-in-law evades US Customs by dumping a package intended for a tinpot local thug (Ribisi), Chris has to reassemble the old crew, and make it right by way of that always precarious one last job. Now, you might be forgiven for thinking that’s the cue for a high stakes, high seas Ocean’s Eleven, where a crew of charismatic and comical seasoned pros employ all their dazzlingly clever know-how to evade the authorities and outfox the competition. Yet Contraband consistently defies expectations by demonstrating a maddeningly frustrating lack of ambition at every turn, despite dabbling in armored car heists, duplicitous double-dealings, and a running gag involving a Jackson Pollock.
Constantly switching perspectives from one character to another, hopping from dry land to the ocean blue, from New Orleans to Panama City and back again, Contraband’s jumbled, jagged presentation struggles to create much in the way of cumulative momentum, and systematically disperses tension by steadfastly refusing to linger in any one place long enough. Farraday’s crew are an entirely forgettable bunch, deemed not even worthy of basic lip service by a script that blesses them with no discernable expertise beyond covering for Farraday by telling the ship’s brass that they haven’t seen him when they’re asked.
Not too long ago Ben Foster seemed on the verge of threatening greatness, but seems to still be searching for that breakout role. This certainly isn’t it and someone would do well to whisper in his ear that he doesn’t have to be intense all the time. Kate Beckinsale makes the most of an underwritten role as the wife to be imperiled whenever the story calls for it. Giovani Ribisi is, as always, a delicious guilty pleasure. Horrible in straight-up dramatic roles as he might be, give the man a thick Virginia accent, tats, and the most unflattering facial hair outside of porn and he is a gem to watch.
Ultimately, Contraband’s collective failings come down to a few muddled priorities. For a purported heist movie it lacks the requisite clever mechanics, delivering one flat scene after another, leaving the viewer yearning for some clever sleight-of-hand, or at least the requisite razzle-dazzle. The internal logic isn’t consistent, and on multiple occasions the entire thing hinges on the appalling device of whether or not someone can get a signal on a cell. Not that when they do it amounts to very much, as, perhaps unsurprisingly, games of cat and mouse are tough to be unnerved by when they essentially boil down to two guys yelling at each other over the phone from different continents.
Yet somehow Wahlberg just about manages to sell it through sheer force of personality, his affable nature ensuring that you continue to root for him despite your better judgment. What it desperately needs though is a sense of humor, or perhaps even just a little tongue-in-cheek with which to leaven the ultra-dry nature of the whole affair. Like a Jackson Pollack, sometimes a little chaos is more interesting.
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