January at the movies has long been a time for two kinds of releases: 1) award-worthy films expanding into wider release, and, 2) crap. That’s about it. I’ll let you figure out which category the action thriller Contraband belongs in.
Paul (Mark Wahlberg) was once the best smuggler in the business. He’s since gone legit, starting a family and his own private security business. His brother-in-law (Caleb Landry Jones) gets into trouble with some bad men. He tosses a load of smuggled drugs to elude Customs ships, but now Briggs (Giovanni Ribisi) wants the value of the drugs or else. Paul knows he has no choice but to put together one last job to save Kate’s (Kate Beckinsale) brother. Paul leaves his family in the hands of Sebastian (Ben Foster), a trusted accomplish on many missions. John puts together a team and plans to board a ship headed for Panama City. While there, the team will load large sums of confederate money. The sale of the fake currency should square things between John and Briggs. However, little goes according to plan.
Contraband is a lousy heist picture that feels like it’s making it up as it goes. First off, the premise of John having to go back into his art of smuggling to settle a debt has been overdone, and the fact that John’s idiotic brother-in-law is as fault makes it hard to care that something might happen to the idiot. But why God do they bring this screw-up, the brother-in-law, along with them? He’s already proven to be a poor decision maker and a moron, and, surprise surprise, when in Panama the guy gets them into more danger. So irritating is this character, always foolishly making things worse for John, that you wish they had thrown this dolt overboard. This is a movie structured with a small beginning, a small end, and a great big fat middle, and it’s that middle that involves our destination to Panama. With heist movies, as well as most thrillers, we don’t want things to go according to plan. We want to see organic complications and watch our team of characters adjust. With Contraband, the complications don’t feel natural so much as like careening plot elements from other movies. John’s quick visit goes out of control, with the team losing their payment money for the confederate loot (guess who’s responsible for that? Guess?), and they have to go find a budding crime lord, Gonzalo (Milk’s Diego Luna), and then this crime lord just happens to be plotting a heist at THAT EXACT MOMENT and John and his team should come along and then the heist goes bad, as always, and the team ahs to get away, but Gonzalo demands to be taken to a hospital by gunpoint, and then the cargo ship is going to leave port, and, and, and, and, etc. There are so many breakneck plot turns thrown in that it feels like a broken blender spewing half-formed plot residue everywhere. It’s the film equivalent of the If You Give a Mouse a Cookie story (“If you give a smuggler a deadline, he’ll need a contact. If you give him a contact, he’ll need to do the contact a favor. If he does the contact a favor, he’ll have to do this one job for him. If he does this one job for him, he’ll need a crew. If he needs a crew, he’ll need… etc.).
Let’s take a moment to analyze the peculiar masks Gonzalo and his team choose to utilize. They literally wrap duct tape around their faces. That’s got to be the dumbest mask in the history of cinema, and there have been some stinkers. They couldn’t afford pantyhose? Anything? They had to use tape? First off, you can’t conceal key features, like your eyes and mouth, and lastly, isn’t it going to be something of a bitch to rip those things off? The only person who could properly wear a duct tape mask would be someone suffering from alopecia (condition that leaves a person hairless). Otherwise you’re sacrificing your eyebrows. Maybe this is just how things are done in Panama.
So much of this movie feels like it’s on autopilot, just drifting like that cargo ship. At this point, I don’t even think Wahlberg is trying to hide his indifference to the material. He’s a man with a shady past who went legit and has a family now, but in order to protect that family he is drawn back to his shady past. How many times has this plot device just been used in the last few years? The rest of the characters fill out the crime thriller cheat sheet: young screw-up who serves as plot catalyst, parent in prison to provide cautionary tale, best trusted pal that ultimately proves to be untrustworthy, and the harried, often victimized wife. Poor Beckinsale (Underworld) who gets beaten, threatened with a gun in her face, and victimized to a degree that it feels like exploitation. This woman can never catch a break. She gets few moments in the film where she is free from being terrorized with violence. I have no idea what would attract an actress like Beckinsale to this part other than the allure of a paycheck. Contraband stalls when it comes to thrills, and part of this is because the villains seem so lame. Briggs just comes across as an inept criminal, like somebody’s own screw-up brother-in-law that tagged along to play with the big boys. He’s routinely beaten and bossed around. It’s hard to take his threats seriously, so the movie cuts its losses and just has him threaten Kate some more. It becomes old quick. The only thing that keeps Contraband going is the great distance between Paula and his family, a divide that keeps Paul vulnerable. Too bad that the movie can’t think of anything thrilling to do with this scenario and settles, all too frequently, on scaring the wife. Wouldn’t the film have been more engrossing if Paul’s wife had been kidnapped this whole time? Would that not cause a better sense of urgency than the vague threat that a character we don’t care about might get offed for being stupid?
From an action standpoint, the thrills rarely materialize, relying on a contingent of blunders and coincidences to provide the thrills. There wasn’t a moment where I worried for a character on screen. This may be because I didn’t care for a person on screen, thanks to workmanlike characterization, but it’s also got to fall on the feet of Icelandic director Baltasar Kormakur (who starred in Wahlberg’s role in the original Icleandic version of this flick) and his nascent camerawork. There will be moments where his camera does stutter-step zooms, mimicking the docu-drama camerawork that’s been en vogue with action cinema. And then he’ll never repeat it. There’s a shot of Gonzalo blowing the armored car up and it’s filmed in a high-speed, stylized shot to distill the strange beauty of the force, and then this never happens again. It’s like Kormakur is sampling all 31 flavors of action movie styles and can’t decide on a visual tone. The action is too dependent on arbitrary coincidences for it to be satisfying of thrilling; we’re just waiting for the next out-of-nowhere plot turn to move things along. The ending attempts to tie up things nicely but feels asinine and laughable in how John can take out three villains in one well-orchestrated, tidy swoop. Don’t even get me started on the impracticalities of John hearing a lone cell phone ringing to be able to trace his wife in an entire construction site. The resolution feels ludicrous and a stroke of dumb luck.
Contraband is a convoluted, knuckleheaded thriller that drags because of arbitrary maneuverings, poor characterization, a fat middle section plot-wise, and pedestrian action. The movie feels like it’s being made up on the spot. As a result of all this tiresome lateral plotting, Contraband feels like it’s going nowhere and spinning into oblivion. I found myself nodding off at various points, my brain bored by all the generic goings-on. The constant victimization of Paul’s wife is a rather ugly development for a movie that confuses salty language and furrowed brows for toughness. The movie is devoid of any sense of fun. It just becomes an empty enterprise of actors going through the motions to work of genre pap. Even by the dirt-low standards of January cinematic offerings, Contraband isn’t worth a cent of your hard-earned money.
Nate’s Grade: C-