Despite a Generic Plot, ‘Contraband’ Is a Perfectly Solid Action Flick

[23 April 2012]

By Brent McKnight

When Contraband hit theaters this past January I wanted to see it. I intended to see it. Hell, I even left the house with the end game of going to see Contraband. Fate, destiny, karma, subconscious desire, or perhaps simple laziness, however, had other ideas. For some reason that day I neglected to double check the press invite—I always double check—went to the wrong theater, and instead of a high-octane action thriller, I wound up at a screening of Joyful Noise. The Dolly Parton/Queen Latifah, gospel choir movie. That Joyful Noise. Not exactly the movie going experience I expected.

While it took a while to finally see Contraband, now on Blu-ray and DVD, the wait was mostly worth it. ‘Mostly’ is the qualifier, because Contraband, while a solid twisting, turning action film, isn’t going to blow your mind or leave you floored. It’s exactly what it is, exactly what it claims to be, but what it is, is fast-paced, tense, and entertaining. And that’s not a bad combination.

Based on the Icelandic movie Reykjavik-Rotterdam—which director Baltasar Kormakur both produced and starred in—Contraband is a story you’ve seen time and again. Chris Farraday (Mark Wahlberg) was a criminal, a smuggler in this instance—the best smuggler, you’re told—but now he’s out of the game. He has a wife, Kate (Kate Beckinsale), and a pair of interchangeable rugrats. The kids barely have names. When his screw-up stepbrother Andy (Caleb Landry Jones) botches a delivery for low-level crook Briggs (Giovanni Ribisi), Chris has no choice but to step back into the life. One last run to smooth things over. Of course, you know nothing is as easy as “one last job”, and everything goes to hell.

Contraband meets with moderate success, despite the stale construct. Oddly enough this is the exact same plot as Gone in 60 Seconds, another film starring Ribisi. The film works best when it constantly increases the pressure on Chris, putting him under the gun, throwing him into a tough spot only to make it tougher. He’s under a strict time crunch; that gets cut in half. He’s about to buy a bunch of counterfeit bills, but someone runs off with the real cash; he has to find another way to procure his payload.

Most of the time this strategy works—giving him a deadline, then cutting it in half—but there are moments when it pushes the limits of credulity for even the most flexible viewers. Like when Chris has ten minutes to participate in an armed robbery, pick up an illicit delivery, drive across Panama City in rush hour, and load a van onto a container ship that is about to depart. The on screen action—including a car chase and shootout—is good, but the whole scenario, and others, can be a bit much.

Set in New Orleans for no reason that I can see other than it’s a port city with a booming film scene, the only people in Contraband with any accent at all are Desmond (Jackson Beals), one of Briggs’ goons, and Ribisi himself. And Ribisi’s accent doesn’t sound like anyone from New Orleans I’ve ever met. It reminds me of the voice Nicolas Cage used in Peggy Sue Got Married. New Orleans is as good a place as any to set this story, it has a great cinematic atmosphere, and it makes sense with the shipping industry. The film, however, fails to make any use of the setting whatsoever, and winds up a complete blank.

The setting is entirely inconsequential, and fades into the background because the plot becomes convoluted and needlessly complex. In a crime story like Contraband you expect some twists, double crosses, and near misses, and there are a bunch. Like the constantly increasing tension, sometimes this works, sometimes not so much. The movie is almost two hours long, and there are one or two too many extraneous subplots that should have been trimmed—we don’t need to know that Sebastian (Ben Foster) is an alcoholic in recovery, it brings nothing to the table and wastes a lot of time.

Despite some glaring flaws, a hint of heavy-handed melodrama at times, unremarkable performances from usually strong actors (Beckinsale, Foster, Diego Luna, Lukas Haas), and a generic story, Contraband is a perfectly solid, watchable action film. When you consider all of the limitations and preexisting conditions, it’s remarkable that the finished product turned out as well as it did.

Like the film itself, the Blu-ray of Contraband walks a well-worn path. Twelve deleted scenes take up a whopping 6:24 of your day. More than actual scenes, these are clips or moments trimmed from extant scenes. The movie already borders on too long, and the only thing of any interest is a quick blip visiting Chris’s father in prison.

A 17-minute making-of documentary is exactly that. It isn’t bad, but it’s only moderately interesting. An eight-minute look at the stunts and action in Contraband is the most fun extra. Cast and crew wanted to make things gritty and realistic, which the succeed at, and this is a decent glimps into that realm.

Having produced and starred in the original, Kormakur has a unique perspective on the film and brings that the commentary track along with producer Evan Hayes. I wish he went into more depth, but the track is, like everything else, moderately interesting. The Blu-ray also features all manner of interactive options for those of you who feel the need to further explore Contraband.

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