One goes into the movie with a certain amount of expectations. Everyone’s working an angle, there are agendas within agendas, the plot is largely an exercise in misdirection aimed at keeping the audience guessing. You know that as soon as you hear the words “one last job” that nothing good is going to happen. Combine that with a good thriller movie which comes with its own set of expectations: revenge (typically a family in jeopardy), fighting (because luckily our star comes from a questionable background/mysterious past that come with requisite abilities), betrayal (the action movie’s version of misdirection), and action cranked up to 11 to distract from any plot holes the writer may have missed. Make this a strictly no frills production and you have Contraband.
Directed by Baltasar Kormakur, Contraband is a sort of re-imagining of the 2008 thriller Reykjavik-Rotterdam which Kormakur produced and starred in. Wasting little time, we’re introduced to your typical family who are trying to escape the family business: smuggling. Chris Farraday (Mark Wahlberg), a rough and tumble former smuggler so badass no one bothers to fight back (though, to be fair, he does beat up the same guy several times), is now married to Kate Farraday (Kate Beckinsale), who shouldn’t even have a name but just wear a sign that reads “I’m just here to be threatened, terrorized, and rescued”. Chris, together with his friend Sebastian Abney (Ben Foster), were like the “Lennon and McCartney of smuggling.”
Kate’s younger brother Andy (Caleb Landry Jones), who apparently shouldn’t be trusted to make toast, botches a job for skuzzy (with extra-skuzzy FACIAL HAIR!) drug dealer Tim Briggs (Giovanni Ribisi). Keep in mind, this drug dealer gets his behind handed to him regularly and is completely non-threatening, just constantly resorts to threatening Kate and the kids to gain any sort of leverage on anyone. However, needing to bail out Andy is just enough of an excuse for Chris to get back into the life he missed. He pulls the old gang back together, under the nose of a suspicious captain with a history with the Farradays (J.K. Simmons), and make a run for Panama.
Smuggling is a novel backdrop for a heist movie as is the way the movie manages to work in Jackson Pollack. The handheld, shaky camera work allows the movie to negotiate the claustrophobic spaces of the ship. Eschewing anything flashy or slick—after all, this is a gritty THRILLER!—the murky cinematography adds to its cinema gritte aesthetic.
“If you get in, you have to be able to get back out.” –Dad
Rooting for thieves is nothing new. Wahlberg plays a blue collar, hard-nosed Robin Hood who’s only wanting to protect his family. So we forgive his “doing wrong for the right reasons” credo. Despite missing his old life, he walked the straight and narrow.
Plus, thieves seem to occupy a special place in God’s heart, too. Jesus, when he was on the cross, suffering through the slow torturous death that was crucifixion, was also the subject of cruel taunts from the crowd, soldiers, and priests. The punishment of crucifixion was reserved for the worst of criminals, those declared enemies of the Roman state. Occupying the spot originally reserved from freed criminal Barabbas, Jesus was crucified between two other criminals. Thieves, men of violence.
Initially, both thieves joined in the crowd’s scoffing, yet something changed in the (soon-to-be-contrite) thief’s mind, awoke in him. To the crowds’ jeers he heard Jesus say “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” He saw his life and his own actions in a new light. On the cross, his life nearing its end, he realized that his sentence was just. He took ownership of his actions, but not only that, he saw Jesus for who He was. Just as much as Jesus identified with sinners, that sinner had a perfectly focused view of the Christ. Jesus’ own disciples didn’t have such a clear faith as the thief did.
We love a rousing bad-boy-made-good story.
Contraband delivers exactly what you expect, almost beat for storyline beat. No more, no less as if it were cinematic action-heist comfort food. Like a sequel to The Italian Job played straight (as in without charm or humor) or [insert generic thriller – I kept waiting for a Mel Gibson-esque “Give me back my son!” sort of moment]. Which is the movie’s problem: locale and smuggling backdrop aside, it is so conventional it is immediately forgettable.