In Contraband, Mark Wahlberg plays Chris Farraday, a smuggler who was the best in the business, but has now given up the family trade (his father was a smuggling legend, now in prison) and gone legit with a home security business and a wife Kate (played by Kate Beckinsale, with the names the same so she wouldn't miss her cues) and two cute kids. He's also got a dumbnuts brother-in-law who has to dump a shipment of cocaine he's smuggling, and now has the bad guys coming after him. Unless Farraday agrees to come out of retirement and make one last run to Panama.
Stop me if you've all this before. You could hardly not, because there is very little in Contraband that isn't well-worn, including a wholesale rip-off of Once Upon A Time In America that is so unimaginative it needs to be called 'hommage'. But this shouldn't be surprising, because the film is itself a remake of an Icelandic movie directed by Oskar Jonasson and co-written by him and the crime novelist Arnauldur Indridason. What makes it interesting is that the Icelandic version, 'Reykjavik-Rotterdam', starred Baltasar Kormakur (director of the Indridason adaptation Jar City, as well as 101 Reykjavik), as a far less-glamorous smuggler, and it's Kormakur who directs this film, and directs it well.
Kormakur is excellent at cross-cutting between stories to emphasise both suspense and parallel sturctures, and visually he's good at finding establishing and transition shots, particularly of the highways and lights of New Orleans and the canals and backstreets of Panama, that play on what's happening in the story. Which needs some playing, because the story is where the main problems lie, as it gets more and more complicated, with Farraday winding up smuggling counterfeit money, cocaine, and a Jackson Pollock. Part of it is that it is, shall we say, playing homage to different parts of the genre at the same time: sometimes taut caper movie, sometimes family crime drama, sometimes claustrophic on-ship mystery, sometimes comic thriller. In the mix, a few things get lost, like logic: for example, why would the captain who dislikes and is suspicious of Farraday allow him free reign of the ship, particularly when it has trouble in the canal. And why, after getting a tip of what he is smuggling, would he not simply lock him in his cabin, rather than giving him a few hours to take care of business. We don't see how Farraday does that, but when we see the results we know it had to have been a complicated process. Similarly, it's hard to believe that in the denouement someone, especially the ship's obsessive-compulsive about cleanliness Captain Camp, (really, and he's played by JK Simmons) wouldn't simply give Farraday up. It's also really obvious from the start that Farraday's best friend (Ben Foster) is setting him up--perhaps Foster is just too creepy to be believed as a hero?
The cast in general is good: highlights are very indulgent bad guy turns from Diego Luna and Giovanni Ribisi as bad guys. Ribisi, interestingly, is the only one of the major actors who tries to put on a New Orleans accent: one of the anomalies of Hollywood's New Orleans is that the city is filled with nasty southern gentlemen, redneck crackers, Cajuns, and blacks who all speak with the drawl, but the stars, particularly Wahlberg never do (think of Dennis Quaid in The Big Easy or Nicholas Cage in Bad Lieutenant). Sometimes it's as if the slums of New Orleans were Southie in Boston, and then David O'Hara wanders in from a Scottish gangster film. It's good to see a part for Lukas (Witness) Haas, and there is Shannon Maris, a native New Orleans actress, in a small role playing straightperson to Wahlberg.
The highlight is, as ever, watching Kate Beckinsale try to act: her finest moment comes when, having just been killed, she's being wrapped in a plastic curtain, and in extreme close up, we see her finger move. It is a perfectly executed piece of existential theatre in the most meaningful sense. Otherwise she mostly plays good wife scenes like 'don't go to the underground meeting tonight, Victor,' and makes a dozen frantic calls into her mobile, as if she's left her Ipad in her agent's office. Wahlberg ought to be worried; he seemed headed in a Bruce Willis-style career path, but too many parts alongside Beckinsale and he could find himself cast as the thinking man's Jason Statham.
But it's all a lot of fun, and Kormakur handles it as such. It's always good to find a film where a Jackson Pollock painting is a throwaway, literally--but apparently that's in the original too. You might say the film is a load of Pollocks, but it's too much fun for that. I saw it in Paraparaumu, where I was one of five in the cinema--apparently even Mark Wahlberg can't smuggle a film into New Zealand.