When a movie starts with a wedding, it’s generally a safe bet that somebody at that wedding is going to die before the credits roll. Even if it is a wedding that feels suspiciously like a Southern Comfort advert.
I like to avoid spoilers in my reviews if I possibly can, but I think it’s safe to say that in a movie thriller where every character is either a smuggler, a counterfeiter, a drug lord or an out-and-out psycho killer, somebody’s story will end badly.
We’ve seen successful crooks come out of retirement for one last big score before. We’ve seen ‘noble’ criminals before, but director Baltasar Kormákur does his best to make these tired tropes seem at least reasonably fresh.
Chris Farraday (Mark Wahlberg) is an ex-smuggler who has gone straight, sinking his ill-gotten gains into a business installing burglar alarms.
Yes, the character is Chris Farraday. With two ‘r’s. I’m going to do my best not to call him Marky Mark even once, no matter how tempted I am.
Handily, Marky Mark’s wife, played by Kate Beckinsale, is called Kate. That’s a real boon for those of us that have trouble remembering the names of characters in films.
In the first few seconds of the movie Kate’s annoying younger brother Andy (Caleb Landry Jones) has a bit of bad luck on a smuggling job of his own.
That brings him into conflict with Giovanni Ribisi, who plays the movie’s villain as a sort of weaselishly ultraviolent Max Cady with the most indestructible 4×4 vehicle in automotive history.
It has to be said that everyone in Contraband is a bit on the one dimensional side: Wahlberg is unfailingly decent and resourceful, Jones is a consistent liability as the younger brother, and JK Simmons plays a ship’s captain as J Jonah Jameson in a sailor suit.
Ben Foster, as Wahlberg’s best friend, has a bit more to work with and I felt as if we could have enjoyed a little more backstory from him.
Kate Beckinsale doesn’t have half enough to do. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if there’s a longer cut somewhere with a good deal more Beckinsale in it.
Further, at one point something happens with her character that really annoyed me. Perhaps one day we will be able to talk about that in the comments, but at the moment I’m trying to avoid spoilers. And frankly I’m still a bit cross.
Contraband is an extraordinarily dark film. Not so much in its tone, although there are some bleak moments that generally involve Ribisi, so much as its lighting. In some shots there’s more grain than image.
I like films where a lot of stuff happens, so it’s not often that you’ll here me say this, but slightly too much happens in this film. In the compressed timeframe of the drama there’s an awful lot of incident. It’s undeniably exciting, but you may well find yourself feeling a twinge of incredulity once or twice.
If this entire story were unpacked into a 6 hour TV series, it would be brilliant. It would certainly make a perfect companion piece to Season 2 of The Wire if that were the case.
As it stands, it’s a solid, likeable movie thriller. Like a lot of thrillers it depends on a superhumanly resourceful hero to make the story work. It’s not one of those predictable adventures with a straight line from setup to denouement though. Just at the moment you’re staring to think that the film is a little bit too straightforward, things get seriously tangled.
And Wahlberg is a convincing blue collar hero that you won’t be able to help rooting for, even if he does break numerous national and international laws in order to achieve his goal.
If nothing else, Contraband would be a great film to take your Mum to on Mother’s Day: despite all the muck and bullets he has to go through, Marky Mark manages to keep his nails very clean