Review: 'Contraband' is a back-to-basics thriller on autopilot

Lukas Haas and Mark Wahlberg star in "Contraband."

Story highlights

  • "Contraband" is a straightforward crime thriller
  • Mark Wahlberg is the reluctant criminal: a married-with-children security consultant
  • Baltasar Kormakur has assembled decent cast that includes Kate Beckinsale
This is the time of year when Hollywood traditionally gets back to basics, almost as if it's embarrassed by the number of worthy Oscar hopefuls clogging up the multiplexes.
Look on "The Devil Inside," "Contraband" and even Steven Soderbergh's "Haywire" as a kind of collective cleanse as the studios attempt to flush out all the pretension and excess accrued from the holiday period.
As rudimentary as its name, "Contraband" is a straightforward crime thriller, its only claim to novelty hailing from the significant portion of the action set on board a tanker en route from New Orleans to Panama (and back again). Mark Wahlberg is (get this) the reluctant criminal: a married-with-kids security consultant forced to return to his first love when his brother-in-law panics and deep-sixes a cocaine shipment intended for a deliciously unreasonable Giovanni Ribisi.
Wahlberg's character, Farraday, is something of a legend in these circles. He and best buddy Ben Foster were the "Lennon and McCartney of smuggling," we're told in the first scene, though it's up to us to work out which is which. In truth, Farraday seems more like a one-man band, the brains and the beauty, with the reliably unreliable Foster relegated to more of a Pete Best role.
Reworking the Icelandic film that he produced and starred in three years ago, "Reykjavik-Rotterdam," Baltasar Kormakur has assembled a very decent cast that also includes Kate Beckinsale (as Mrs. Farraday), Lukas Haas, J.K. Simmons, David O'Hara and Diego Luna as a crazed Panamanian gangster. But there's not much here for any of them to sink their teeth into.
A sluggish first act only occasionally sputters into life, mostly when Ribisi is given the floor.
Things pick up when Farraday's plan starts to unravel.
Approaching the docks at full speed, the tanker nearly carves out a brand new Panama Canal. Then the "funny money" he and his contrabanditos mean to ship back to the land of the free proves laughably easy to detect. And of course there's Luna's lunatic to deal with. Even then, you might come across more action, and certainly meatier drama, in a typical episode of "Breaking Bad."
"The Hurt Locker" cinematographer Barry Ackroyd does his best to inject some gritty realism into the proceedings, but several forced and farfetched plot developments might have been better served with the self-consciously flip, flash style pioneered by Luc Besson than the gloomy, low-key naturalistic approach. Not that I've nothing against a thriller taking itself seriously, but "Contraband" trades in too many clichés and contrivances to work up any genuine emotional engagement, and when it does threaten to do something risky or unpredictable, Kormakur immediately pulls his punches.
As usual, Wahlberg supplies the center of gravity and grounds the show with the kind of dogged determination that is his forte. But it's disappointing that for all the character's guile, Farraday's master stroke is stolen wholesale from a sequence in Sergio Leone's great underrated gangster saga "Once Upon a Time in America" -- which makes him a ripoff merchant at least as much as he's a smuggler.