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Non-Review Review: Contraband

Contraband is a thoroughly enjoyable little thriller, albeit one with several significant flaws. Indeed, “thorough” seems to be quite the word to apply to this smuggling caper, as director Baltasar Kormákur and writer Aaron Guzikowski seem intent to wring every possible thrill from the basic plot. While it can lead to some seemingly disjointed tangents, it ensures that there is always something happening, even if it feels like the movie never really develops its core ideas. Still, it’s a solid thriller with a wonderful cast and an interesting enough central premise.

It'll counterfeit right in...

Contraband is nominally a movie about smuggling. I say “nominally” because things come off the rails in the middle of the film, with it briefly transforming into a gangster and heist movie before reverting back. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with the sudden genre switch, and it succeeds at keeping the audience off balance, even if it does feel a little random. Still, there have been relatively mainstream thrillers covering the art of illegal smuggling, so Guzikowski has some fertile ground to plow. It feels like we might have been better served by diving into the smuggling aspect in more depth, rather than getting diverted down tangents.

And, to be fair, most of it is quite interesting. We’re introduced to “the Lennon and McCartney of smuggling”, two veteran players who”got outta the life” and seem to be living decent and respectable existences. Chris Farraday is now a family man working a decent job installing alarm systems, putting his ingenuity to work in a legal manner. Sebastian Abney, his brother in all but blood, is running a construction company, and enjoying the existence of a wealthy bachelor.

Guns should be contra-banned...

Naturally, as seems to be obligatory in a film like this, things go wrong. Chris’ brother-in-law ends up severely in debt to a local drug dealer. In order to help his brother-in-law out, Chris embarks on one last haul, hoping to make enough money to square things and – you guessed it – get out of the life completely. In fairness, the movie doesn’t mess around. It knows we’re familiar with these conventions and plays them briskly, in order to get straight to the actual smuggling.

Kormákur handles the tension and suspense quite well, as our lead finds himself tied up in several near misses with the authorities, and in several risky situations. It seems like Kormákur doesn’t miss a trick when it comes to constructing a thriller – if there’s an opportunity to put the audience on the edge of their seats, he takes it. Even lifting a cargo crate on to a ship becomes a life-and-death situation. Don’t get me wrong, it works. Contraband is never boring, even if it does tend to detour quite a bit.

Foster brothers...

However, I can’t help but feel that the somewhat convoluted plotting does belie an overly simplistic moral compass. Contraband is constructed like something of a noir film – a good man is forced to do a bad thing to protect his family – but there’s none of that ambiguity around the central character and his smuggling. Despite the fact that he’s entering a very nasty world, populated with very nasty people, there’s never a sense that Chris is in any way compromised himself.

“I told you,” he yells down the phone, “I’m not bringing in drugs.” Instead, Chris runs counterfeit “funny money.” While it’s a crime, it’s easy to pass off as a victimless one. We know that he comes from good people because his father refused to allow the local mobster to execute the witness against him, and is now serving time. It seems like half the cast is composed of murdering double-crossing scumbags, but Chris never seems to be tainted by having to deal with them. It’s slightly disconcerting in a movie about smuggling featuring drug dealers and mobsters, and makes Chris seem almost shallow and simplistic.

There's a lot on the line...

It’s not a fatal problem, but it creates the impression that the lead is less interesting than the world around him. Mark Wahlberg is solid as Chris, but he doesn’t have a lot to work with. Although the supporting cast is very impressive, and they help to elevate the movie, with even the smaller players helping the audience to buy into the next slightly outlandish plot twist.

Ben Foster is an actor who really needs more exposure, and he does a great job as the smooth and charming Sebastian. Giovanni Ribisi is very strong as the sleazy out-of-his-depth thuggish drug dealer, managing the difficult task of appearing both threatening and wimpy at the same time. J.K. Simmons is, as ever, perfect in a small role. Diego Luna manages to stir the movie through a rather bizarre second act, and I think he helps hold it together through force of charisma. Lukas Haas has a handful of lines, but fits nicely. David O’Hara is suitably sinister as an old family friend.

He's got currency with these people...

The supporting cast work well because they are actually more developed and nuanced than Chris. The movie hinges on several plot twists about the nature of certain characters and their relationships to one another. Those moments would fall flat if these characters didn’t seem in some way tangible. The cast and the script manage to keep us interested in the twists, even as they start to get a little out there.

Contraband does feel a little zany at times, as things seem to get worse for the sake of getting worse, and it seems like getting off a boat in Panama is the worst thing a person could do. However, the film manages to hold itself together quite well, anchoring itself in solid performances from a wonderful supporting cast, and solid suspenseful direction. The ending borders on trite as everything seems to wrap itself up a little too perfectly, but it is a fun ride, if you can take it on its own terms.

4 Responses

  1. There’s not a lot to think about while watching it and we’ve seen some of this plot before in other films, but for a movie opening in January, it’s actually pretty damn good thanks to a couple of cool heists and a relatively good cast. Nice review Darren.

  2. Caught the original “reykjavik-rotterdam” earlier in the year and was thoroughly impressed (it’s about smuggling pure alcohol, not money). The star of the original directed this version, so there’s a strange synergy there that I’m itching to see.

    After seeing the trailer this review sums up almost exactly how I thought the re-make would be, still, looking forward to it, and can’t wait to see Giovanni back on the big screen!

    • I wouldn’t mind seeking out the original, to be honest. And you’re right, that is a very strange bit of synergy. I’ve heard about directors directing Americanised remakes, but actors? Still, the guy has talent. The film had problems, but direction wasn’t one of them.

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