Thursday, January 12, 2012

'Contraband' smuggles a few thrills into January

Mark Wahlberg stars in a caper movie that's not nearly as ambitious as some of what he's produced.

There are two ways to look at a movie such as Contraband. As a hard-boiled thriller compared to dozens of other similar movies, it's not exactly a groundbreaker. If, on the other hand, you're prone to seasonal generosity, you may want to regard Contraband as a serviceable entertainment, particularly for those seeking a quick genre fix.

An admission: I don't always get Mark Wahlberg, who's building one of the great mixed-bag resumes. He's produced great shows on HBO (Entourage and Boardwalk Empire), and has given really strong performances in movies (The Departed and The Fighter). With Contraband, Wahlberg works hard to turn in another performance as a regular guy, a former smuggler who's working hard to go straight, but he doesn't seem to be operating on the most ambitious side of his ledger.

Contraband focuses on Wahlberg's Chris Faraday, a married man and father who has started his own security alarm business as he tries to leave his criminal past behind. There's not much dramatic ore to be mined in movies about former felons who give up lives of crime, so the movie must find a way to force a reluctant Faraday back on the wrong side of the law.

It doesn't take long for us to learn that Faraday's brother-in-law (Caleb Landry Jones) has screwed up a drug smuggling job. As a result, he owes major money to a vicious mobster, Giovanni Ribisi in another over-the-top performance as a smuggler with a sadistic streak.

The only way Chris can ride to his brother-in-law's rescue is to set up another smuggling job with help from a buddy (Ben Foster).

The most interesting thing about Contraband may be its milieu. The movie begins in New Orleans, but winds up spending a fair amount of time working its way through the world of container ships. Faraday stages a smuggling caper that takes him to Panama and brings him into contact with various thugs as the plot expands to involve counterfeit money, cocaine and a Jackson Pollack painting. Don't ask.

The supporting cast, some of it underutilized, includes Kate Beckinsale in the somewhat thankless role of Chris' wife, a woman who's increasingly threatened as the movie wears on, and J.K. Simmons, as the captain of the ship that Chris uses for his smuggling operation.

Director Baltasar Kormakur, who starred in the Icelandic original on which Contraband is based, doesn't always help matters, directing in an edgy, abrupt style that can be more disorienting than exciting.

Kormakur deserves credit for wrapping up a lot of details in fairly short order, even if the ending doesn't deliver quite enough kick to lift Contraband out of the thriller ghetto. Having said that, I'll add that I didn't really mind the movie, and even got caught up in it at times. I know this isn't going to sound like high praise, but for all its problems and loose ends, Contraband is ... well ... OK.

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