Film Review: Contraband

New Orleans smuggler forced to pay off an in-law's debts must outwit a rival gang when he is double-crossed. Sturdy remake of the Icelandic thriller 'Reykjavik-Rotterdam.'

An efficient action vehicle for Mark Wahlberg, Contraband works best when it details the mechanics of smuggling on ocean freighters. Otherwise, its by-the-numbers plot builds up just enough suspense to tide over hungry action fans until something better comes along.
Wahlberg plays Chris Farraday, a too-good-to-be-true blue-collar worker in New Orleans. Married to Kate (Kate Beckinsale), the world's most glamorous hairdresser, and the father of two young boys, Chris is trying to put his past as an expert smuggler behind him. But when Kate's brother Andy (Caleb Landry Jones) falls into debt to gangster Tim Briggs (an unrestrained Giovanni Ribisi), Chris must mastermind one last score.

Chris assembles a team on a freighter bound for Panama, where he hopes to bring back enough counterfeit currency to pay back Briggs. Cohorts include Andy, who quickly gets into trouble, and the newlywed Danny (Lukas Haas), who likes to warn Chris that they are in over their heads. When Briggs terrorizes Kate and the boys back in New Orleans, she moves in with Chris' friend Sebastian (Ben Foster).

Plans in Panama go disastrously awry, leading to an armored car heist and a prolonged shootout with maniacal crook Gonzalo (Diego Luna). Double-crosses pile up on the return trip, as Captain Camp (an amusing J.K. Simmons) grows suspicious of Chris and Briggs becomes more threatening. Tipped off to the smuggling scheme, customs agents are waiting for Chris at the dock in New Orleans. Kate and the children later become bargaining chips in an increasingly deadly struggle to gain the upper hand.

Contraband is a remake of the Icelandic thriller Reykjavik–Rotterdam, which starred director Baltasar Kormákur. The switch to New Orleans and Panama makes good sense, although Kormákur doesn't delve much beyond generic settings. His cast gives a good approximation of blue-collar types, but Contraband's grit comes from cinematographer Barry Ackroyd's dark palette and Elísabet Ronalds's blunt editing, not from the acting or story. If anything, Kormákur could have modulated his style at times, instead of staging every moment at the same intense pitch.

Screenwriter Aaron Guzikowski hits all the expected genre bullet points—untrustworthy friend, menaced family, over-the-top crook, compromised plans—but throws in bizarre digressions, including an unhinged criminal kingpin with a deadly menagerie in his headquarters and several bits of business with a Jackson Pollack canvas. When it's payback time, the script lets viewers down repeatedly, backing away from confrontations genre fans expect.

While the ending of Contraband is disappointing, overall it's a fairly effective thriller with another smooth performance by Wahlberg. Fans could do worse, but will know all along that they could do better as well.