Contraband is a high-octane action thriller starring Mark Wahlberg, Kate Beckinsale and Ben Foster. Despite its slight predictability, it still manages to avoid the many pitfalls other films of this genre have driven right into.
Whenever you watch an action thriller, there are certain conventions that they all seem to abide by. There will always be the trusted character who turns out to be a rat, there are action scenes that are implausible, and above all else, they show us an exciting world we wouldn’t otherwise get a glimpse of. Contraband does all this, but pulls it off in a way that has just enough ground in realism to make the action passable.
A lot of this has to do with Mark Wahlberg (The Fighter). The guy has a charm that makes him simultaneously the tough guy and the man you’d invite for Sunday lunch. The result is an identifiable character whose personality and motivations are enough to support the plot.
Chris Farraday (Wahlberg) used to be a top-class smuggler in his hey day. That is until he left it all behind in favour of a family life with his wife Kate (Beckinsale) and their two boys. When Kate’s younger and more easily led brother Andy (Caleb Landry Jones) messes up a drugs run, Chris is swept back into the world of contraband to settle his brother-in-law’s debt to his boss, Tim Briggs (Giovanni Ribisi).
The plot is nothing we haven’t seen before. Wahlberg must get to Panama and back with counterfeit bills, without getting caught. And despite the gritty complications that throw themselves in his way, the fun is had in watching how he succeeds, not in wondering if he will. Yes, it is predictable in places. Within the first fifteen minutes you will no doubt have worked out which characters aren’t as nice as they appear, and which will come out on top. However the fast plot moves steadily enough to keep you entertained throughout each development.
Depth of character is also strong. Husband and wife duo Beckinsale (Underworld) and Wahlberg spend most of their time away from one another, and yet they pull off the husband and wife dynamic brilliantly. A lot of this is down to the complexity of Kate, whose character has been adapted from an original Icelandic version of the film. The result is a gutsier woman whose fierce loyalty to her family is clear. You wouldn’t believe this was the wife of a former smuggler if she was a willowy damsel.
Based on the 2008 Icelandic thriller Reykjavik-Rottherdam, that starred Contraband director Baltasar Kormakur, the new film has been transferred from its original setting in the Nordic seas, to New Orleans and Panama. With Kormakur directing, he has re-imagined the entire premise for a brand new audience. The result is an extremely violent affair.
In fact, if you are squeamish this probably isn’t the film for you. The violence is not restrained or suggested off camera. It is right in your face, aggressive to the point it gets gruesome. That said, the violence is what makes the film. Gone are the days when protagonists would fire one shot and hit their target while the enemy misses every time. Instead we have Wahlberg’s Chris beating the gangster boss, Briggs, to a pulp for threatening his family.
My main complaint with the film was the various sub-plots. Yes they did add depth, but it became difficult to follow in places. A lot of screen time is dedicated to Chris’ best friend Sebastian (Ben Foster) which is necessary. The time allocated to the many and various supporting characters? Not so much. Leaving them certainly would have made the plot less confusing.
Overall though it is a good effort. Entertaining, funny in places, and Clinton Shorter’s pulsing score keeps you on the edge of your seat. Just don’t expect to be wowed by the originality and take it for what it is.