You've got to give it to Mark Wahlberg, who seems to have stumbled into one of the steadiest careers in Hollywood through sheer force of will. He managed to leave his underwear model and rapper days behind through a tight friendship with David O. Russell, which led him to awards season successes like The Fighter, paved the way for his Oscar-nominated role in The Departed, and also gave him the ability to headline a series of disposable thrillers tailor-made to prove he's still a man's man. Contraband, if you couldn't tell from the poster in which he duct tapes wads of money to his abs, is another one of those, long and loopy and completely absent dramatic stakes.
It's not too surprising that Wahlberg would sign on for something like this, or that he could put together a supporting cast-- among them Ben Foster, Giovanni Ribisi, J.K. Simmons-- who seem equally half-asleep as he is. But Contraband marks the directorial debut of Icelandic director Baltasar Kormakur, who made a splash there with similarly themed thrillers, and who starred in the original Icelandic version of this story, Reykjavik-Rotterdam. With so much invested, why on earth would he turn in a movie so plodding, so unconcerned with the basic cause and effect beats of storytelling, or so convinced of its own grittiness while also lacking any real-world logic? There is a Mark Wahlberg movie about counterfeit money smuggling we would all fall over ourselves to see, but Contraband scratches the surface of that idea just enough that you badly wish you were seeing the better version.
As described in some flatfooted expository dialogue at the beginning of the film, Wahlberg's Chris Farraday and his BFF Seabastian (Foster) "were the Lennon and McCartney of smuggling" before they gave up the game, but of course, Chris is called in for "one last job" when his brother-in-law runs afoul of some drug dealers. Chris sneaks on to a container ship and marshals some of his buddies from the old days to help him pick up crates counterfeit cash of Panama City, sell it off back home in New Orleans and repay his brother-in-law's debt, all while leaving his wife (Kate Beckinsale) and two sons back at home in the same town where those angry drug dealers live. Wahlberg moves through the film with almost enough confidence to brush off this sort of giant logic problems, but the more complications and violence Contraband throws your way, the harder it is to believe the movie has any idea what it's doing.
Kormakur wrings some tension out of a few scenes that rely on a ticking clock, like Chris racing to hide the loot on board the ship before the captain notices, or even when Chris's wife is put in an especially preposterous sort of mortal danger. But stretching out nearly two hours, Contraband squanders its tiny bit of goodwill with a hotdogging, "gritty" attitude that's never reflected in the actual story. With Wahlberg in dull leading man mode and even the usually reliable Foster failing to cut loose, Contraband is not nearly as fun as it could have been, but not dramatic or realistic enough to get by as an honest thriller either. If this is the kind of filmmaking Kormakur is trying to sell to America, he can keep it-- we've got plenty of it anyway.
Reviewed By: Katey Rich