Contraband didn’t catch my interest at first. It didn’t seem to offer anything original. I was convinced it was just going to be a typical formulaic action movie. As it turned out, it didn’t even deliver on that low expectation. Everything about it was hit or miss – mainly miss. And the “hits” weren’t very good. With Mark Wahlberg in the lead, I had some hopes that Contraband might surprise me and exceed my expectations. Wahlberg hasn’t delivered any memorable performances since The Departed and The Fighter; and in The Fighter he was completely overshadowed by Christian Bale’s outstanding performance. Walberg’s acting stood out in The Departed and he held his own against some major acting heavy weights (Jack Nicholson, Martin Sheen, Leonardo DiCaprio, Alec Baldwin). That role set a high water mark for his career and he’s going to have a tough time matching it again. I think he will, eventually, though. He didn’t in this film, however. Perhaps in his next role - in the upcoming Ted. As the lead in Contraband, Wahlberg didn’t deliver the good.
Set in New Orleans, Contraband tells the story of Chris Farraday (Mark Wahlberg), a former smuggler who has gone straight because of his wife (Kate Beckinsale) and their two sons. Unexpectedly, his wife’s brother (Caleb Landry Jones) gets in some trouble with a local criminal (Giovanni Ribisi), so Chris has to go back into the business with his best friend Sebastian (Ben Foster) to remedy the situation. Their plan is to ship out to Panama and pick up a very large truck-sized pile of counterfeit currency. Of course, not everything goes according to plan.
What surprised me about Contraband is that there is very little action in it. The movie drags through some gratuitous character development scenes and spends way too much time documenting the characters’ development of “the plan.” As you might guess, from my choice of adjectives, none of this works in the movie’s favor. More time and energy should have been devoted on the action scenes in the movie. The plot progresses through a predictable A to B to C series of events with a few twists, here and there, but you can see those coming from a mile away. The character development didn’t succeed in making us care about anybody’s fate to any great degree. Although the action scenes were technically well done and were generally fun to watch, they never placed the characters in any situations that felt like they posed any real sense of threat to life or limb. When an action scene fails to do this, there’s something really missing from the aura of a film of this sort. An action scene has to be very good for a flaw like this not to be noticeable. That wasn’t the case in Contraband.
Another two things that hurt the film were the script and the camera work. Surprisingly, the shaky cam technique used in the action scenes wasn’t the problem. What didn’t work, for me, was the ever-changing odd camera angles. Whenever anyone in the movie would be doing something, aside from fighting, the camera angles would shift from one weird angle to another – like the illustrated scenes in a graphic novel. I think director’s thoughts were that this would create a kind of gritty feel to the movie, but it just didn’t work. It felt contrived and gimmicky to me. Contraband is an American remake of the Icelandic movie, Reykjavik-Rotterdam. I have not seen the original version, but I kind of want to check it out after seeing this – just to see if it’s better. Aaron Guzikowski adapted the screenplay. The screenplay isn’t bad, but it’s not good either. It just doesn’t seem to have a proper focus. It spends too much time on subplots and not enough time on the main story.
Mark Wahlberg does his “usual thing” in this movie. He’s playing the same character he’s been playing throughout much of his career. He isn’t bad, but he doesn’t rise above what is rapidly becoming a stereotypical role for him. I think when a director pushes him, his acting improves dramatically. I hope that happens more often in the future. In this film, there are times when it seems that Wahlberg doesn’t even know what movie he is in. When I see a film with Walberg in it, I still have an interest in seeing it because he does have a certain unique screen presence that commands attention. And I do think he has acting talent. He just hasn’t shown it consistently yet. Kate Beckinsale is okay, but she really can’t do much with the little screen time that she has. Giovanni Ribisi is the best out of the cast. His is the standout performance and he pretty much steals every scene that he’s in. It seems like everyone is using a Boston accent, but the movie takes place in New Orleans. That was a bit confusing. Ribisi was the only actor using a New Orleans accent, so points to him for doing that. As good as he was, I still couldn’t picture him as the villain he plays in the movie. But he still definitely steals the show. The rest of the cast is decent. None of the acting was standout (save for Ribisi), but none of it was bad.
I’ve been pretty critical of Contraband, but I should add that it’s not all bad. It takes a lot of risks, which I admire. Unfortunately, most of the risks didn’t payoff – the “creative” camera angles didn’t achieve their intended effect and, instead, were a distraction, the many subplots didn’t add character depth or interest, but rather took away from the main story and action, etc. Contraband felt like it was trying to rise above the orthodox and ordinary crime genre movie. In that respect, it was interesting. In the end, however, not enough worked in the film and, to boot, the third act was a big letdown. In a year that has seen a good number of fun, very well made action films, Contraband is an entirely forgettable movie. I hate to put it down, but no point to see this one.