The specter of diminished expectations rises every year at about this time, when the studios trundle out their garbage in hopes that we’ll overlook them in favor of the burgeoning Oscar race. It’s full of horror knock-offs and cheap actioners: movies too weak to compete with their betters later in the year, but which still have a budget to earn back before fading into obscurity. In a weird way, they actually come as a relief. We just got done with an endless slog of pretentious movies, message movies, and movies that bend over backward to tell us how Very Very Important they are. After two months of that, watching Mark Wahlberg slap the taste out of some punk’s mouth holds a real appeal.
Contraband thus rewards the undiscerning customer: the one who doesn’t care much about plot holes and logic issues, and really just wants to see the stated star kick some ass. This runs counter to the ostensibly gritty crime drama on display, but then again, if we could take said crime drama seriously, it wouldn’t be opening in January. Beside which, Wahlberg is very good at bringing his own grit which, when combined with engaging direction from Baltasar Kormakur, pulls us into the movie almost in spite of ourselves.
Wahlberg plays another of his patented working-class heroes, a former smuggler named Chris Farraday who’s left the life in favor of making sweet, sweet love to his Kate Beckinsale lookalike wife (Kate Beckinsale). Then his dipshit brother-in-law (Caleb Landry Jones) gets into hot water with the wrong people, and he has to strap on the spurs for the proverbial final job. It entails counterfeit cash brought up from Panama into the States, providing plenty of opportunities to show us how Wahlberg secures his cargo on one end and recovers it at the other without the authorities finding out.
The details of his arrangements are fun, and Kormakur delights in throwing every possible curve ball at his hero in an attempt to make him blink. Part of our enjoyment stems from watching Farraday work his way out of the corners he’s boxed into – everything from suspicious ship’s captains to a Panamanian yo-yo (Diego Luna) who ropes him into an armored car robbery. Each new episode ups the stakes, and Wahlberg’s inherent likeability ensures that we stay tuned for the outcome. Karmakur utilizes some slick camerawork and a bouncy pace to close the deal each time: making for fast-paced entertainment that feels just smart enough to prevent us from asking too many questions.
Contraband depends on that last bit, because if you look at it in the cold light of day, it’s preposterous bullshit. By my count, Farraday and his cronies should have been arrested at least half a dozen times: escaping only because the director pointedly turns our attention elsewhere at key moments. Furthermore, the film displays a conveniently blind worldview whereby arrested villains can never return to wreak a horrible revenge and police never actually show up to question the heroes the way they would in any rational universe.
Again, I have no problems with this… save that it gets in the way of the film’s earnest assertion that really real smugglers actually do things this way, and the narrative could actually be happening in a grungy urban crimehole near you. If it were any other time of the year, I’d call Contraband on that presumption; even as it stands it’s a near thing. But in January, we take our pleasures where we can find them. Wahlberg’s star power carries considerable currency, and he’s aided by a solid ensemble that includes Luna, Ben Foster and JK Simmons. (Giovanni Ribisi’s twitchy bad guy is the exception that proves the rule.) It refrains from putting on excessive airs, and its action pieces hit the appropriate spots in the hindbrain just the way they should. Don’t think too much and you’ll be fine. Considering the alternatives (at least until the fantastic The Grey opens in a couple of weeks), you won’t do much better.