With Mark Wahlberg, Giovanni Ribisi, Kate Beckinsale, Ben Foster, Lukas Haas. Written by Aaron Guzikowski. Directed by Baltasar Kormákur. Rated R (for violence, pervasive language and brief drug use). 110 minutes.
Based on a 2008 film from Iceland, something seems to have gotten lost in the translation in transforming this into CONTRABAND, the story of an ex-smuggler who has to pull off one last job. Part of the problem is that the movie spends so much time with lowlifes, criminals, turncoats and just plain despicable people, and these are the good guys. The bad guys are even worse.
Mark Wahlberg tops a strong cast as Chris Farraday, the ex-smuggler who has gone straight and is now devoted to his wife (a miscast and misused Kate Beckinsale) and two young boys. However, when his brother-in-law (Caleb Landry Jones) runs afoul of a local drug lord (Giovanni Ribisi), he has no choice but to pull off One Last Job to set things right. It involves going from New Orleans to Panama to pick up several million dollars in counterfeit American money.
What follows is a tortured and convoluted plot where characters have secret agendas, the drug lord attacks Chris’s wife and kids, Chris’s best friend (Ben Foster) agrees to watch out for her while John’s away, and things are only getting started. Chris signs on to the crew of a cargo ship, but the captain (J. K. Simmons) hates him and demotes him to vacuuming the ship’s carpets. Who knew cargo ships had carpets? Then the deal he thought he had set up goes bad so he has to improbably make a hurried connection for counterfeit money from another source. Then things go bad and he has to agree to help a Panamanian gangster rob an armored truck. Meanwhile the ship is preparing to leave Panama and his wife is under a new threat at home.
Confused? It’s not that hard to follow. What it is, though, is absurdly contrived. This is a movie that thrives on coincidence and last minute changes. Wahlberg’s character manages to avoid being caught by a matter of seconds not once, not twice, but at least three times during the course of the film. Kate Beckinsale faces certain doom if her husband doesn’t show up at precisely the right moment. The armored truck robbery involves not cash but a famous painting that is subsequently discovered several times and misinterpreted as something else. This isn’t clever plotting. It’s laziness.
The cast does what they can with their parts but the writing and direction are so weak that we never get the sense of these being people caught up in a web of lies and deception, only cardboard cutouts whose identifying traits seem to be the whole of their existence. Thus Ribisi is a violent thug, but he also cares for his daughter. Where did she come from? Where’s the mother? Who cares for her when he’s off terrorizing other people? Don’t ask those questions. The daughter exists for the sole purpose of showing that Ribisi’s drug lord has another side to him. No thought was given beyond that.
“Contraband” may not have been smuggled in from Iceland, but one has to ask if the original film made more sense than the mess that’s onscreen here.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books, the most recent being Jar Jar Binks Must Die… And Other Observations About Science Fiction Movies. He teaches film at Suffolk University and lives in Somerville.