If you need a guy to play a tough as nails, gritty, blue-collar former cop or street thug with a heart of gold, Mark Wahlberg is the man. It’s what he does best, and no matter how great of an actor he becomes he will always seek out these types of roles. Even The Fighter, for which he has received the most universal acclaim, fits neatly into this mold. There’s nothing wrong with that. Wahlberg knows his strengths and plays them up, and filmmakers recognize it as well. That’s why they all flock to him with movies like Contraband, which let him be the tough guy while also being conflicted enough to make a believable husband and father.
Contraband is the prototypical January action movie, a sub-genre unto itself. It’s not a bad thing, as the theory of every movie in these opening months being terrible is overblown and lazy analysis at best. Contraband is the type of solid, high quality thriller that entertains but doesn’t leave an indelible mark. If it came out in August it’d be just as strong, and a step up from the usual summer junk we’re forced to endure.
Originally an excellent Icelandic thriller which starred Contraband’s director, Baltasar Kormakur, the story has been transported to post-Katrina New Orleans. Wahlberg plays Chris Farraday, a former criminal who has seen the error of his past and settled into a cozy but boring life installing security systems. Who better to teach you how to keep people out than somebody who specialized at breaking in? While attending the wedding of a friend, Chris discovers that his wife’s(Kate Beckinsale) brother has screwed up a drug run for Tim Briggs(Giovanni Ribisi), an insane dealer with a permanent chip on his shoulder and a gun always at the ready.
In order to ensure his brother in law doesn’t turn up in the morgue, Chris is forced to take on that most cliched of things, the “one last job” to settle any debts. “Forced” is perhaps too strong a word, as Chris is instantly invigorated by the dangers and thrills of being in the middle of the action. Silly rabbit, don’t you realize that every “last job” will go disastrously wrong? It’s like a law or something. In Chris’s case, the meticulous planning he put in to gather a team and secure passage on a merchant vessel run by a crooked captain(JK Simmons) will all be for nothing. A simple snatch ‘n grab smuggling run to Panama for some counterfeit cash goes belly up when the loot isn’t up to snuff, forcing Chris to improvise an already overstuffed plan. When a Panamanian drug lord(Diego Luna, looking like a low-rent Che Guevara) and his crew get involved, Chris’s hopes of an easy deal literally blow up. Unable to punch or shoot his way out of the mess he’s entangled in, the situation only worsens as betrayal threatens Chris’s family back at home.
A role like this is a cakewalk for Wahlberg, who has an easy, roguish charm beneath all the tight shirts and muscles. The rest of the cast don’t fare so well, including Ben Foster as Chris’ long-time friend, Sebastian, tasked with protecting his family. Giovanni Ribisi is playing a more violent version of the demented twerp he was in The Rum Diary, and Kate Beckinsale is mostly relegated to damsel in distress status. It’s not that the performances are bad, it’s just the characters are uninspired. The script, credited to Aaron Guzikowski, is only interested in what motivates Chris to take on these risks, and a decent job is done presenting him as a man torn between two contentious parts of his life.
The real find here is Kormakur, who is making his first big move into blockbuster Hollywood film making, and he shows a knack for flashy, explosive action. The armored car sequence in itself is a thing of beauty, an exercise in controlled chaos. Amidst all the stylish shoot outs and violence, there’s a real attention to detail that is a welcome change. Bringing the film to it’s conclusion proves to be problematic, though, as the pace slows to a crawl and characters start making inconceivable, bone-headed errors. If everyone was as stupid as they are at the end of the film, we’d be wondering how any of them got out of bed in the morning.
Wahlberg has been singing Kormakur’s praises for months now, going so far as to hand pick the director for 2 Guns, an action/comedy he’s set to star in next year. It’s easy to see why. With his European sensibilities and style, Kormakur has a bright future adding a contemporary touch to familiar genres.