‘Contraband’ movie review: Mark Wahlberg smuggles money in grimy caper flick

A grimy B-movie caper flick with the cast to match, Baltasar Kormákur’s Contraband lacks any kind of ambition but gets the job done; fans of star Mark Wahlberg in action hero mode – think Four Brothers, Shooter, or Max Payne – should be sated.

It starts out pretty rough: background, character development, and story are nil as we’re dropped into a faux-gritty neorealist style that seems to be at complete odds with the over-the-top story. A more authentic feature might benefit from the style; here, it’s a distraction. But the absurd script eventually wins out, and any fun Contraband has to offer is delivered with B-movie relish.

The film begins with a pair of drug smugglers dumping their goods into the New Orleans bay following a police raid. Now the bad guys, including Tim Briggs (Giovanni Ribisi), want their money back, and aren’t afraid to ask. Luckily, Andy (Caleb Landry Jones) has a brother-in-law who just happens to be a former smuggler himself.

That brother-in-law is Chris Farraday (Wahlberg). What does he smuggle? Not drugs, no, he has standards. No, his plan is to smuggle in millions of dollars in counterfeit US currency (a van full of it) from Panama to cover his brother-in-law’s debt. 

Ignoring the logical concerns behind smuggling this kind of material, he’s also greatly increased the technical difficulties of the operation.

But he knows a guy. So he leaves wife (Kate Beckinsale, wasted) at home with good friend (Ben Foster, so you know something’s not right), puts in some paperwork, and gets a job with the rest of his crew – Andy, Danny (Lukas Haas), and Tarik (Lucky Johnson) – aboard a transport ship headed for Panama. 

Of course, Captain Camp (J.K. Simmons) knows who Andy is and what he’s up to, so they’ll have to be extra careful.

When they get to Panama, the absurdity is ramped up three levels as Contraband begins to fly off the rails. The counterfeit dough is no good, but no worries, they have all of 30 minutes to find a replacement. 

A dealer friend (Diego Luna) will give Chris the 15 million in counterfeit US currency he just happens to have lying around, if – and here’s the catch – he participates in an armed robbery that’s being carried out right now. No problem. Still time to make it back to the boat.

Mind you, all this is being filmed in Kormákur’s gritty-authentic style: handheld camera, quick cuts, cool hues. It shouldn’t work at all, but the disparity between what the director is filming and how he is filming it adds an ironic subtext that makes it all the more palatable, and for a little while, Contraband is a real blast. Best bit: a running gag involving a Jackson Pollock piece.

Unfortunately, the scenes back in New Orleans don’t fare as well, with Beckinsale’s character put through the ringer just to add a little extra tension. Foster, typically a manic, wild-eyed presence, underplays throughout; picking up his slack, however, is Ribisi as the slimeball dealer who isn’t too far from his drug-addled character in The Rum Diary.

Kormákur, the director of 101 Reykjavík and Jar City (which took home the Crystal Globe at the 2006 Karlovy Vary IFF), starred in and produced Reykjavik-Rotterdam, the 2008 Icelandic film that Contraband is based upon.

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Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky has been writing about the Prague film scene and reviewing films in print and online media since 2005. A member of the Online Film Critics Society, you can also catch his musings on life in Prague at expats.cz and tips on mindfulness sourced from ancient principles at MaArtial.com.

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