Contraband (**)


Schizophrenia can be a helluva thing and the latest cinematic version of a film that cannot control its mood swings, temperament, or demeanor is Contraband.  Essentially, Contraband looks like a gritty action suspense/thriller.  And a heist film.  And a family drama.  And a wife-and-kids-in-peril horror film.  And a rooting for the anti-hero film.  In short, Contraband wants to be everything to everyone and mostly fails in being anything to anyone.

Mark Wahlberg is a fine actor and as a friend pointed out to me, and this comment is completely true in analyzing his career, he is most often great when he is in an ensemble.  When asked to be the sole name-above-the-title, situations typically found in his lackluster attempts to be a big-time action movie star, Wahlberg and, in turn, the films suffer.  For every The Fighter, The Other Guys, The Basketball Diaries, Boogie Nights and The Departed, there is The Happening, Shooter, Max Payne, and Rock Star.  And now there’s Contraband.

You may think Wahlberg has an ensemble cast around him but this is clearly his film, and Wahlberg is in virtually every scene playing Chris, a former drug smuggler who has gone straight and has his own security alarm installation business, largely because he is now married to Kate (Kate Beckinsale) with two young sons.  Kate, however, shown to be rough around the edges with bad hair highlights and a couple of ill-advised tattoos (sigh), has a brother, Andy (Caleb Landry Jones), who either idolizes Chris’ past work or just cannot get out of his own way.  Suffice to say, Andy botched a drug run quite bad, angering Briggs (Giovanni Ribisi), a Central Casting-style prototypical thug-slash-drug dealer, who now wants Andy dead for the mix-up.

As Andy recovers from the injuries he suffered when the drug deal went bad, Chris learns of what transpired and instantly knows who all the major players are.  He confronts Briggs and Chris realizes that it is time FOR ONE LAST RUN!, in an effort to make things right for his family, the bad guys, and the universe as a whole I think.  The run consists of ensuring the delivery of endless sheets of counterfeit bills and requires Chris and his hastily assembled team to travel to Panama

Mark Wahlberg and Ben Foster star in "Contraband" (Universal Pictures)

Contraband means well I suppose and director Baltasar Kormákar was the star of the original film Contraband is based on, the 2008 Icelandic film Reyjkavik-Rotterdam.  Not having seen that, or frankly ever heard of it before, I have no way of comparing the two films, except that it is peculiar that the original film’s star is directing the American remake.  Kormákar has, shall we say, an interesting approach to his film, as that aforementioned schizophrenia in deciphering what type of film this wants to be extends out to the tone and pacing of the story.  The entire film is lensed through that Michael Mann-inspired Collateral gritty, grainy Hi-Def technique, but accelerates and ramps down haphazardly so often that it becomes next to impossible to engage with what is happening on screen.

Except for Wahlberg.  He is consistently Tough Guy Mark through and through and is amusing to watch trudge through all of this.  Whether he is delivering the most random and absurd putdown I have heard in a film in quite some time or conveniently jamming guns down people’s throats, Wahlberg is not the problem with Contraband.  Likewise, although I feel as if he showed up in a completely different movie, J.K. Simmons (Juno, the Tobey Maguire Spider-Man films) has some winning moments as a ship captain, with sketchy morals, who becomes unwittingly involved in Chris’ ONE LAST RUN!  Add in Diego Luna (Y Tu Mama Tambien) as a crazed Panamanian drug lord and Ben Foster as Chris’ best friend, Sebastian, tasked with ensuring the safety of Chris’ wife and kids, Contraband has some good within its slipshod logic, direction, and pacing.

Despite liking elements of Contraband, those moments proved fleeting and the film proves to be  too wildly uneven and fractured to find any real merit in it.  I have no read on whether Baltasar Kormákar is a good director or not, but he appears clearly overmatched here and the screenplay by first-time feature film scribe Aaron Guzikowski does him no favors.  Unable to focus, Contraband feels very long at 109 minutes and while it elicited gasps and worrisome noises from a woman directly behind me in my screening of the film, I never once found myself surprised or dazzled by anything transpiring in front of me.

Except for that wildly inappropriate Wahlberg putdown late in the film…I am still laughing about that one.  Even right now.

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My love of film began at the age of 7 when my parents not only gave me a television, but HBO to boot. My first theatrical experience was "E.T." My first movie cry came with "Old Yeller". "The Usual Suspects" made me decide to make movies and film writing a priority in life, even knowing the twist beforehand. My passion for film, music, and pop culture in general can be isolated to my youth. My love for film took root in high school. Above all else, movies and art, in any form, exist to entertain and I remain much more interested in how art affects others, more than with myself. But I love the conversation and to have a chance to share my thoughts and be a part of the community here is a unique and enriching experience.