No need to smuggle 'Contraband'

Reeling It In
Mark Wahlberg, left, and Ben Foster are shown in a scene from “Contraband.”

Universal Pictures
1 hour, 49 minutes

With action movies, you can usually categorize them pretty simply. In the top slot are those few that you wait in line for, rave to your friends about, see twice in the theater and then buy as soon as the DVD comes out. These are your "Batman" and your "Indiana Jones" films.


Next are ones that are basically good enough. An easy, enjoyable evening out, and then, six months or a year later, a bargain DVD pick that you snag on sale and then throw in when you don't want to really care about the movie. This would include most of Bruce Willis' repertoire.

The last batch are the films where you sit through thinking to yourself, "Why is this movie so bad? It can't really be this bad, can it? I like Mark Wahlberg. What is going on!?" Five years from now you'll see it on the shelf at the video store and think, "I'm pretty sure I saw that movie, but I can't remember anything about it. I think it was bad, but how can that be? It has Mark Wahlberg in it." And you'll rent it, putting yourself through the same confused pain you felt when you saw it the first time. This week's Wahlbergian heist drama "Contraband" falls into that final category.

Wahlberg is Chris Farraday, the apparent Houdini of smugglers in his day, but currently retired with a beautiful wife and two young sons. He's out of the life, but when his moron brother-in-law is forced to dump a load of cocaine into the bay rather than get arrested by U.S. Customs officials, Farraday is forced to step in and deflect the wrath of a volatile drug dealer. This leads to the inevitable "one last job." And so, our hero is off to Panama where much of the nearly two-hour plot line is devoted to life aboard a large container ship. Bad cell service, lousy food, crummy jobs. Then, finally, we get to Panama and we're briefly back in an action movie. Back home, the aforementioned drug dealer is busily harassing Farraday's family, which will surely lead to bad things, once the long, slow container ship journey is finally over.

What makes this movie really falter is the writing. The plot is overdone, with too many characters to care about and too many different story elements to maintain the proper pace. It's not twists and turns, so much, as just too many pieces to move around the board. There's New Orleans, and Panama, and drug dealers, and Panamanian drug dealers, and counterfeiters, priceless art work, alcoholics anonymous, the stupid ship ...  it just goes on and on. No wonder the movie was so long.

What makes it worse is the dialogue. Had the script been better, maybe the convoluted plot would have seemed more interesting, but as it is, the script consists mostly of lines that don't need to be said. "Hey, watch out, or you're going to slip and fall in the water!" says the one smuggler to the other smuggler who is comically leaning over the bow of the boat, trying fish out a stack of counterfeit bills. Really? Did I need that joke to be telegraphed any more than it already was?

The actors in the film, Wahlberg, Kate Beckinsale, Ben Foster -- they're all usually pretty solid. But here, with so little to work with, they don't really rise to the occasion. Only Giovanni Ribisi, almost invisible under his greasy hair, creepy goatee, and thick cajun accent, does anything even close to creating a unique character, but even with an A for effort, he can't save a sinking ship.

Everything about the film feels like amateur-hour. Without Mark Wahlberg as a producer, I'm not sure this script, with this director could have gotten these stars, B-level though they are, to do this movie. Aside from the terrible writing, the camera work is incredibly frustrating. Apparently director Baltasar Kormakur sees himself as an intimate storyteller in the style of Steven Soderberg, but the effect is just annoying. To much shaky camera work, too many zooms. It just doesn't work.

Interestingly, Kormakur has a pretty close connection to the source material for "Contraband," having starred in the Icelandic film on which it was based. Perhaps the slow, uneven pace works better in Iceland, or maybe they had better writers, but I can't see that this story was worth revisiting, even with Wahlberg on board. There are plenty of good Mark Wahlberg films to choose from -- here's hoping I don't accidentally choose this one again.

Grade: D+

"Contraband" is rated R for some fairly graphic language and violence.

Chris Jenness is a freelance graphic designer, artist and movie buff who lives in Nikiski.


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