“Contraband” is the very reason for that saying ‘in one ear and out the other.’ For as much potential enjoyment value (or in my case, indifference) it provides the viewer as they watch it happen onscreen, I doubt many people will anticipate watching it a second time through (at least not for a long time). There are neither very many good things to say in its defense, nor all that many bad things to run it into the ground. Nothing here elevates the routine material past being a generic heist picture. But then again, nothing makes it a bad heist picture. Oh joy, these kinds of movies are my absolute favorite to critique.
This American remake of the Icelandic heist movie “Reykjavík-Rotterdam” is directed by Baltasar Kormákur, the lead actor in the original film, making his Hollywood directorial debut. Mark Wahlberg now takes over as Chris Farraday, a former “world-class smuggler,” as one person puts it. However long ago it was, this man made a determined effort to retire from his criminal past. Since his departure from smuggling, he’s gotten married, has had a few kids and works a nine-to-five job in New Orleans. But of course, one can only stay away from old habits for so long before something comes up. Something that forces them to once again become reacquainted with their former lifestyle.
His relapse into the smuggling game begins with a kid named Andy (Caleb Landry Jones), his troublesome brother-in-law. Andy is responsible for royally screwing up an important drug trafficking operation, an unfortunate incident which makes his superior, the loathsome crime boss Tim Briggs (Giovanni Ribisi), very very very upset. Andy will surely be killed if he is unable to repay a massive $140 million debt to Briggs. Chris approaches this drug lord in hopes of settling this debacle, even defeating him in a round of fisticuffs in front of the guy’s young daughter. But Briggs won’t wait around for his reimbursement: X amount of money in X amount of time or else he’ll off every last one of them, including Chris’s wife and children. And of course, that means war. Nobody talks to Mark Wahlberg like that.
So that’s when he devises an elaborate contraband job in which he, Andy, and a few other assistants will make their way onboard a cargo ship headed by J.K. Simmons (with a strange southern-esque drawl to his voice), which is making its way toward the port of Panama City. There, they will seek out a sketchy warehouse and procure more than a few carefully arranged heaping piles of counterfeit hundred dollar bills.
Putting aside the obvious question of how these guys will transport several square feet of that Monopoly money from the warehouse onto the ship, how will they go about stashing the loot, or as one of team players candidly puts it, “How we gonna steal that much sh*t?” Chris has that covered, too. As it turns out, there is a spacious hidden compartment located behind the ample tool board on the ship’s walls. If there were ever an award to be given for Aquatic Vessel Most Suited for Covert Operations, this cargo ship would certainly take home the gold.
Meanwhile, the wife Kate (Kate Beckinsale) and the two kids remain at their home in New Orleans, vulnerable to danger. Early on, their place gets stormed by Briggs and his henchmen who verbally threaten them and even shoot a bullet to tacitly imply that they mean business (don’t worry, it is only a feather pillow that gets shot). This prompts an old family friend named Sebastian (Ben Foster) to swoop in and save the day by offering his protection and allowing them to crash at his quarters. Ben Foster has a build and appearance similar to Ryan Gosling, though there always seems to be a more devious nature lurking beneath his cool surface.
The problem with “Contraband” is that it exhausts all of the familiar plot elements and clichéd tropes found in just about every other kind of heist movie. A supposedly retired veteran of a trade who is reeled back in to prove himself one last time? It has been done to death, not to mention it’s been done better. And the operation itself? It is essentially “Fast Five” all over again, only not as many muscle cars and a graver, grittier attitude, which inadvertently makes it even sillier to suspend disbelief with all the outrageous stunts that go on. Mark Wahlberg plays his character with his trademarked stone-faced intensity (hey, he’s good at that), but that one look does not guarantee that the character will be engaging or riddled with depth. Though Ribisi and Foster do some commendable supporting work, everybody else seems to lumber lethargically through stale characterization. Though it doesn’t help that the script never offers its performers to do much other than deliver lines of exposition.
It took me about half an hour to warm up to the film’s tone and story. For a little while, I was mildly entertained, if a little disillusioned by the commonplace plot. Then a shootout over a painting takes place, the police get involved, and I was lost. Just before the team got the fake cash onto a cargo container, my attentiveness began to wane. Somewhere in the middle of the third act when surprises and twists start appearing left and right, I checked out. I did not care about who has the money, where it was, or what would happen to it.