Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Import/Export: CONTRABAND

The small surprise of Contraband, a one-last-job heist movie (yes, one of those), is that it’s marginally clever, reasonably engaging, and filled with enjoyable little bits of character acting. It’s not great, and it’s hardly what you could call believable, but it has a somewhat authentic griminess, a couple neat twists, a few halfway decent thriller setpieces, and it held my attention. It’s a modest studio thriller with slimy bad guys and likable antiheroes going through a familiar plot. I doubt I’ll remember much about it next January. I feel it slipping away from me even now. But then again, you never know.

It stars Mark Wahlberg as a talented smuggler who now runs his own security company. He’s given up the game to focus on keeping his wife (Kate Beckinsale) and their two sons safe. Unfortunately, his wife’s brother (Caleb Landry Jones) has run afoul of a mean low-level crime boss (Giovanni Ribisi) who demands repayment for a missed shipment of drugs, threatening to come after their whole family if he doesn’t get the money in a timely manner.

With the help of another rehabilitated criminal (Ben Foster), Wahlberg is able to gain employment on a freighter to Panama with a crew that includes his brother-in-law, his actual brother (Lukas Haas), and a few other guys who will try to help him sneak a lot of counterfeit money past the suspicious captain (J.K. Simmons) and back into the port of New Orleans. It’s supposed to be a simple job, after which Wahlberg can pay back the baddies and comfortably leave criminality behind him. You might be able to guess that it won’t be that easy.

Baltasar Kormákur, an Icelandic actor and director who starred in, but didn’t direct, the original Icelandic film upon which Contraband is based, directs the film. He and cinematographer Barry Ackroyd (who also shot The Hurt Locker, so the one really cool super-slo-mo explosion is less rip-off and more repeat) give it a blockheaded shakiness, animating it with a kind of slick pulp dread. I particularly liked the way they handled the portions of the film that take place on the freighter itself, finding some thrill in the process of clomping up and down the halls, trying to smuggle the goods past the crew members who aren’t in on the secret plan.

During a brief time off the boat in Panama, the imagery opens up with dusty sunshine. There, Wahlberg and company get caught in the crossfire of an overlapping heist when local robbers in duct-tape masks (led by a sort of funny Diego Luna) fire back at a heavily armed police force. It’s a brief scene of urban warfare that unexpectedly put me in mind of Michael Mann’s Heat. Of course, this is no Heat, but it has a similar overarching concern with the viability of criminal lifestyles (though it’s not interested in the substance of that idea) and also a big cops and robbers shootout in the middle.

Even at its sleaziest, when Kormákur stages scenes of children in danger and a last-minute damsel in distress with a slimily brutal effectiveness and overkill, this is a film that makes room for its character actors to make choices. (But not poor Beckinsale, in a dull worried wife role; she gets next to nothing to do and still gets punished by the plot for it). Are the supporting players’ choices always for the better? Sometimes yes, sometimes no, but at least character actors are doing what they do best, injecting personality into the proceedings. That’s what helps to bring the movie up to a level of adequacy it would otherwise have struggled to achieve, even with the fairly propulsive filmmaking.

It all helps to distract ever so slightly from how slight it all is. Ribisi gives a squirrely, nasally quality to his role that makes him as pathetic as intimidating. Simmons has a choppy but bumbling voice here that doesn’t dull his ease with sarcasm. I guess what I’m saying is that between interesting voices in the supporting roles, fun little details like duct-tape masks and neat little thriller moments that involve fairly believable, if improbably successful, smuggling switcheroos, there’s enough to Contraband to count it as a reasonably diverting midwinter midlevel studio programmer. 

1 comment:

  1. There’s not a lot to think about while watching it and we’ve seen some of this plot before in other films, but for a movie opening in January, it’s actually pretty damn good thanks to a couple of cool heists and a relatively good cast. Nice review. Check out mine when you get the chance.