Release Date: January 13, 2012
Director: Baltasar Kormákur
Writers:Aaron Guzikowski (screenplay),
Arnaldur Indriðason (film Reykjavik-Rotterdam) and Óskar Jónasson (film Reykjavik-Rotterdam)
Stars: Mark Wahlberg, Giovanni Ribisi and Kate Beckinsale
MPAA Rating: R
January is the bleakest month for movies. The studios tend to launch their Oscar hopeful films and their big budget family fare in December, meaning that January gets the leftovers. So it’s no real surprise that Universal is giving us Contraband this week, an overly-formulaic, poorly-conceived and badly-shot heist film.
Contraband follows a well-worn formula. In it, Chris Farraday (Mark Wahlberg) is a retired smuggler turned family man who is forced to do one last job to pay off a debt his brother-in-law racks up with a local gangster. Farraday assembles a crew and goes to Panama to steal millions of counterfeit dollars to set things right.
The film has many problems, but by far its biggest one is its unwillingness to let anyone get the upperhand on Farraday. In his first encounter with Tim Briggs (Giovanni Ribisi), the gangster who his brother-in-law owes the money to, Farraday wrestles a gun out of Briggs hands and tells him if he ever threatens his family again that he’ll kill him. In a later scene, Farraday savagely beats Briggs while two of his thugs basically just stand there and watch. There isn’t a single moment in the film where Briggs gets the better of Farraday. He comes across an an ineffectual weasel without any real power.
Because of this, it becomes unclear why Farraday takes on the job at all. If Briggs is such an ineffectual dope, why does Farraday have to pay him back? It seems like he could simply outmuscle him or find a way to outsmart him so that he’s in jail or otherwise out of the picture. Briggs needed to be intimidating so that we believed Farraday and his family were actually in some type of jeopardy. It needed to feel like there were actually high stakes. We needed to feel like Farraday was vulnerable in some way and not a superhuman figure who is stronger and more clever than everyone else around him. As it stands, his reasons for getting back into a life of crime seem flimsy at best.
The other major problem with the writing is a subplot involving Farraday’s wife Kate (Kate Beckinsale) and his friend Sebastian Abney (Ben Foster), who stays behind to watch over Farraday’s family while he is off smuggling the cash. For the sake of spoilers, I won’t get into too much detail about this plotline, but I will say that it takes a very odd and fairly ridiculous turn. The suspension of disbelief needed to accept anything that happens in this storyline is way too much to accept, even for an over-the-top heist movie like this. The twist is shocking for the sake of being shocking, completely comes out of left field and is just badly conceived and badly written.
Making matters worse is the way the film is shot. It is way too dark and grainy, which I imagine was meant to give it a gritty feel, but ends up just making it hard to see what’s happening in a lot of the scenes. Director Baltasar Kormákur needed to find a better way to give the film the feel he was looking for without making it hard to watch.
Still, Contraband does have a few well-executed moments. The way Farraday ultimately settles things with Briggs is a nicely done moment. Also, the way he is able to smuggle the cash into the country was clever and was set up well earlier in the film. Plus, there is an amusing and unexpected use of a Jackson Pollock painting.
The cast is also fairly solid. Wahlberg is good, though he could probably play this role in his sleep at this point in his career. I’m a big fan of Ben Foster and think he gives a solid performance in this film, he’s just hampered by a dumb storyline. The always entertaining J.K. Simmons is great as Captain Camp, the guy in charge of the ship Farrady smuggles the money aboard. William Lucking also has a nice cameo as Bud Farrady, Chris’ incarcerated father.
There are a handful of good moments in this film and solid performances by some talented actors. With January being a slow month for movies, I really wish I could recommend this film as an amusing, if not very ambitious, heist film. Unfortunately, I think the negatives in this one ultimately outweigh the positives and keep this from being an entertaining film.
Written by Joel Murphy. If you enjoy his reviews, he also writes a weekly pop culture column called Murphy’s Law, which you can find here. You can contact Joel at firstname.lastname@example.org.