From where I’m sitting, there are two main types of heist films. The first involves heavy planning, and then a near-flawless execution, with only one or two things going wrong that have to be rectified. Think the Ocean‘s series. They’re intense throughout (if done well), as you’re never sure just when things will start to go south. Then, there are films like Contraband, where everything goes wrong and a lot of improvisation takes place.
Either heist film can easily have the stakes upped by making it a “one last time” type of quest for the main character. Contraband, to nobody’s surprise, does this. The lead is Chris Farraday (Mark Wahlberg), a former smuggler currently married to Kate (Kate Beckinsale). She has apparently turned his life around, and he has stayed on the right side of the law for a while now. He owns his own home security company, he has two children, and he has a best friend in the form of Sebastian (Ben Foster). Things seem to be going well for him. That is, until something bad happens.
That something comes in the form of Kate’s brother, Andy (Caleb Landry Jones). Despite Chris’ objections, Andy was still smuggling for drug dealers. A run went wrong, he had to dump the merchandise, and he’s now owes $700,000 to a drug dealer named Tim Briggs (Giovanni Ribisi). Chris goes to Briggs in order to work something out, and eventually is on a cargo shop that he’s going to use to smuggle $10,000,000 in fake bills in order to pay off the debt. Maybe that’s a little bit of overkill, but we’re not sure how well that security business is doing. Maybe the recession hit him hard.
There are essentially two plots at work in this film, although the latter doesn’t get much screentime. The first one involves the actual caper, the one where everything constantly goes wrong. Every screw is tightened as far as (you think) it can go, and then tightened even more. The second plot involves Kate and her kids, now living with Sebastian, being threatened by the drug dealer and eventually becoming a major plot point just to tighten those screws even more.
What surprised me most about Contraband is how much time is taken to set-up these characters. I wasn’t keeping track of the exact time, but I would wager that somewhere around the first 45 minutes are spent before Chris even gets on this ship. Before that, this is a movie that plays out way more like a drama than anything else. There aren’t any action scenes, there’s little tension, and we’re mostly just watching our characters figure out just what to do next.
But once we’re on the ship, we realize that the tension has been slowly building beneath the surface. Once the first thing goes wrong, this is a film that doesn’t let up. From this point, approximately an hour in, until the very final scenes, this is a very stressful film. All of those character scenes pay off once the action starts. You know who everyone is, you think you know what role they’re supposed to play, and you get to sit back, watch everything go wrong, and then watch Chris try to fix it all. There are a couple of major twists scattered throughout, and it all adds up to a fairly involving and thrilling — if generic — movie.
There are a few points that don’t amount to anything, and not in that clever red herring kind of way. There’s a minor subplot involving Chris’ father (William Lucking), and another one involving a second drug dealer (David O’Hara), although neither of those really add up. The latter one is important, but it comes from out of nowhere and didn’t make a whole lot of sense. It seemed as if a lot of its scenes got cut, or perhaps the script just didn’t think to include much of it.
You’re also going to have to suspend your disbelief a great deal while watching Contraband. More here than for many action-thrillers, I think. A lot of this film relies on timing, coincidence, and absurdity. It’s all thrilling if you get involved, which will more than likely be the case, but if you step back and think about it, Contraband is really silly.
Not that the characters would want you to realize it. Apart from two or three humorous lines (one of which is shown in the trailer), the characters in this movie have no sense of humor. It makes sense; they’re all one wrong move away from either going away to prison for countless years and having their families killed, or being killed themselves. But a joke here and there probably wouldn’t have hurt the film. There’s a type of wittiness that is occasionally shown by the Wahlberg character, but it doesn’t happen often enough to say that it was done on purpose.
Contraband is a remake of an Icelandic film titled Reykjavík-Rotterdam. The lead actor in that film, Baltasar Kormákur, is the director here. While that’s an interesting tidbit of information, Kormákur doesn’t shine with this film. There’s one scene in particular that I think of which leads me to this thought. In it, Chris has to steal a map of the ship while its captain (J.K. Simmons) is in the same room, but distracted. In a scene that should be ripe with tension, I yawned. Of course the captain will turn and start walking in the direction of Wahlberg’s character, but a good director will make it thrilling when this happens. There is no feeling here, and while most of the proceedings are intense, this happens more thanks to circumstance than skill.
Ultimately, Contraband is an above-average heist film. It takes its time to get going, but once it does, there’s no stopping it. The set-up works effectively, slowly building tension until it all gets released in the final 50 minutes. While the script needed fine-tuning, removing some unimportant plot points to help the pacing, this is an engaging film with effective performances.