‘Contraband’ an undistinguished heist flick

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Directed by Baltasar Kormákur

Screenplay by Aaron Guzikowski

USA/UK/France, 2012

The worst sin committed by Contraband is one of false advertising. In every way this has been promoted as an action film, as Wahlberg plays a former smuggling legend who has settled down with his wife (Kate Beckinsale) and a business designing alarm systems for wealthy New Orleans residents. When his brother-in-law gets mixed up with a drug kingpin (an utterly unrecognizable Giovanni Ribisi), he has to pull off the score of a lifetime to protect his loved ones.

However, he does not protect them with his moves or his muscles, but with his wits. This is basically a procedural heist film, much more Law & Order than Guns & Ammo. The reason that Universal decided to advertise it as the latter is probably because Wahlberg plays an unlikeable character: an unrepentant thief who lies to Homeland Security and pistol-whips Ribisi’s character in front of his young daughter.

It is not necessarily a bad thing to have such a character as your hero; that’s why Han Solo shot first. However, Contraband has such a dry and methodical pace that it sucks out any opportunity for Wahlberg to pretend he’s Harrison Ford. The film’s big heist is little more than a string of bribes, stalling, and deception of U.S. Customs agents. There’s a little more action during an art-heist digression, but it mainly involves Wahlberg taking cover from gunfire before he returns to the ditchwater-dull main plot.

Wahlberg and Ribisi deserve some respect for throwing themselves into character with fearless abandon. The remainder of the cast struggle with awful Louisiana accents, and Beckinsale has the most thankless hero’s-wife role I’ve seen an A-list actress saddled with in a long time. It’s no wonder she moved back into the Underworld franchise, because if roles like this are the best she can manage otherwise, killing werewolves in a leather cat-suit is obviously for preference.

Contraband would like to be a realistic thriller that never asks the audience to suspend disbelief, but it turns upon absurd incompetence from Wahlberg’s opponents. At one point Wahlberg literally escapes capture by claiming that he has to go to the bathroom and escaping out of the back door, at which point it becomes clear how weakly this movie is trying to entertain. In the end, it’s not even clear that this film clears the very low bar it sets for itself.

Mark Young

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