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Contraband

Director: Baltasar Kormákur
Cast: Mark Wahlberg, Kate Beckinsale, Ben Foster, Giovanni Ribisi, Diego Luna, Lukas Haas, J.K. Simmons

(Universal Pictures; US theatrical: 13 Jan 2012 (General release); UK theatrical: 13 Jan 2012 (General release); 2012)

Don't Tell Your Sister

“Don’t act like you don’t love this shit,” observes Andy (Caleb Landry Jones). His brother-in-law Chris (Mark Wahlberg) smiles broadly. “Is it that obvious?”, he asks, then swallows hard and returns to unpacking his shipboard gear, “Don’t tell your sister.” 


“This shit” is smuggling, a field in which Chris has an awesome reputation. He’s sworn off such illegal risk-taking, now that he’s married to Kate (Kate Beckinsale) and has two young sons. But he’s come back for another run because Kate’s brother, Andy, has gotten himself into a lot of trouble. That trouble is laid out in the very first sequence of Contraband, wherein Andy and his dead-meat buddy Walter (Jason Mitchell) have to dump the drugs they’re smuggling when Customs agents board their ship in New Orleans, and then face the wrath of their heavily tattooed and mostly sociopathic employer, Tim (Giovanni Ribisi). So begins the One Last Job.


It’s not like Chris doesn’t try not to do it. A decent fellow all around—he slow dances with the wife at the local bar, he dotes on the prop kids, he won’t smuggle drugs—he puts on his stern face and goes to talk with Tim, hoping to be able to pay back Andy’s debt reasonably. But no matter Chris’ own notoriety and that of his dad (played by William Lucking and currently in prison forever), Tim takes his psycho stand, positioning his goons around Chris and threatening not only the singular fuck-up Andy, but also Chris’ wife and kids. He accuses Chris of being past his prime (“You’re a tourist,” he sneers) and juts his chin like a punk. All this so you understand why Chris agrees to the job (“I like your outfit,” he sneers back at Tim), and even to take Andy along on the job (so he might engage in still more fucking up).


All this means that the movie lines up its moral ducks are aligned (Chris is reluctant, Kate is reluctant) in order to allow Chris’ elaborate scheme. He secures his working passage aboard a ship his dad used to use, skippered by neurotic Queeg-type Captain Camp (the perfectly cast J.K. Simmons), who immediately spots his old adversary’s boy and sets him to janitorial duties. This delights Chris’ team members, guys he’s worked with before, including nervous nelly Danny (Lukas Haas), surly Tarik (Lucky Johnson), and bearded Igor (Ólafur Darri Ólafsson, featured as well in this film’s original version, 2008’s Reykjavik-Rotterdam, alongside the remake’s director Baltasar Kormákur). These guys know how to gunk up the ship and hide the contraband, and also how to follow Chris’ lead, and take especial pleasure in watching him outsmart Captain Camp.


When the ship arrives in Panama City, Chris heads into town to pick up a load of funny money. While he’s gone, he leaves his friend Sebastian (Ben Foster) in charge of protecting his family, even though everyone (apparently) knows Sebastian has a thing for Kate and also his own debt to pay off, to a menacing local gangster, Jim Church (David O’Hara, who appeared with Whalberg in The Departed). In other words, you see some complications looming long before they’re spotted by the much revered and supposed mastermind Chris. Maybe, you might be thinking, you’ve got a mind for such capers. Or maybe this caper movie is just that dumb.


All that said, Contraband features a couple of entertaining moments. One occurs on the ship, with that broad smile on Chris’ face as he admits he really does “like this shit.” The other takes place in Panama City, where Chris and company have to deal with Gonzalo (Diego Luna). Warned that Gonzalo has turned crazy, Chris scoffs that he can handle “that little fucking shit.” Grrr. 


When Gonzalo appears, late in the movie, you see that he is pretty crazy and you feel grateful. Luna plays him like a once-hungry gangster gone soft, his belly hanging, his hair scraggling, his arrogance oozing. Facing off against Chris, he seems formerly clever, but too distracted and gonzo now, arming his idiot minions with automatic weapons, sort of disguising but mostly distorting heir faces with silver duct tape—which makes for a terrific effect during their serial shootouts with cops and other bad guys.


Chris and Gonzalo seem to be functioning in a different movie from everyone else, a movie they get if no one else does. Their mutually appreciative violence and intrigues are set apart from the more banal lunacy back on the ship or in the States. Sadly for the rest of us, Gonzalo is too soon relegated to just one more subplot among Chris’ raft of subplots. Chief among these is Kate’s being stalked and beaten by very skeevy villains, and then blubbering on the phone for Chris to come home. He gets this part of the movie too, and more or less leaves her out there to distract his increasingly nutty enemies: it’s not clear whether this is intentional or accidental, but she suffers mightily either way. Chris does like this shit—that’s why he’s so good at it and why he doesn’t notice how old it is.

Rating:

Cynthia Fuchs is director of Film & Media Studies and Associate Professor of English, Film & Video Studies, African and African American Studies, Sport & American Culture, and Women and Gender Studies at George Mason University.


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