There are so many ways to steal something, but when it comes to the big score, movies have kept their focus on elaborate heists. How are the criminals going to break into the vault? How will they escape? Couldn’t they put all of this effort into a job that doesn’t risk going to jail? These questions aside, the basic point remains: steal what you want and don’t get caught. But there are so many other ways to accomplish that. Baltasar Kormákur‘s Contraband is a fresh take on the theft genre (unless you’ve seen the original version, the 2008 Icelandic film Reykjavik-Rotterdam) by turning the attention to smuggling. However, the movie always feels torn between what’s safe and familiar and what’s daring and inventive.
Chris Farraday (Mark Wahlberg) is a former-smuggler who was one of the best in the game, but now he’s happily living the straight life with his hot wife Kate (Kate Beckinsale) and their two adorable kids. Even his alcoholic friend Sebastian (Ben Foster) has cleaned up and is building a new business. Sadly for Chris, the purpose of skilled criminals who have gone straight is to get drawn back in for “One. Last. Job.” When his dumb brother-in-law Andy (Caleb Landry Jones) has a smuggling job go south and finds himself in the crosshairs of the psychotic criminal Tim Briggs (Giovanni Ribisi), Chris agrees to take on a job to repay Andy’s debt. Chris heads to Panama, and leaves Sebastian to protect Kate and the kids from Briggs.
Contraband has to grind its way through the set-up as we hit every familiar beat. Casting Wahlberg in the lead role makes matters worse because while he’s perfectly competent and adept at playing a criminal, we’ve seen him play it seven times before. Farraday is basically Wahlberg’s character from The Italian Job but in a gritty, R-rated world with no sweet-natured Donald Sutherland to avenge. Kate and the kids are nothing but a reminder of what Farraday stands to lose, and Briggs, with his high-pitched, over-the-top Southern accent, is more comical than menacing.
If all of the actors played to the level of Ben Foster’s performance, Contraband would be phenomenal. No one in the cast is outright terrible (although Ribisi seriously missed the mark on his character), but Foster once again shows how he can elevate the material. A weaker actor would have shown all of Sebastian’s cards from the first scene, but Foster crafts a three-dimensional character who conjures mixed emotions from the audience. I imagine Kormákur—an actor himself—gave his cast the freedom to build their characters, but Foster seems to be the only one who truly took advantage of it.
As a director, Kormákur (who played the lead role in the original) takes the well-worn shaky-cam approach, but he wields it better than most because it brings the illusion realism to the world of smuggling. I imagine most audiences don’t know how smuggling works, and while this film may not provide a 100% accurate representation, Kormákur paints a convincing portrait of how the crime functions. The moment we see Sebastian and Chris going through ship manifests and getting Chris on board like its old hat, Contraband becomes a far better movie. We’re no longer in the tired “one last job” story nor are we dealing with heist mechanics.
Getting the score is the easiest part of the job. It’s not even stealing, but Kormákur goes too far out of his way to show how Contraband isn’t a heist flick. During an action scene involving an unexpected armored car robbery, Kormákur turns away from the hand-held approach and starts using speed-ramping to play up the effects. It’s as if the director is saying, “This sensational approach isn’t my movie! Now watch how I incorporate this sensational approach!” The tone suddenly becomes schizophrenic and in the same scene we see the over-stylized visuals mixed with lazy shaky-cam cinematography.
This is the war of Contraband. Ben Foster is at a level where you want the other actors to join him and add complexity to their characters. The story has to plod through a weak set-up to get to the good stuff and then comes to a silly, unnecessary coda when it had the opportunity to dodge the Hollywood Ending™ and do something powerful and tragic. Kormákur pushes us out of our comfort zone by thoughtfully portraying an unfamiliar crime and making it exciting, but then he’ll retreat back to the comfort of well-worn shaky-cam action, easy stakes, and Mark Wahlberg in a role he could do in his sleep. There’s enough fresh material in Contraband to make it a decent crime flick, a movie that plays at being gritty and realistic shouldn’t feel so safe.