Contraband (★★★ Empire review)

ContrabandSquarePLOT When his teenage brother-in-law falls foul of a dangerous drug dealer (Ribisi), former smuggler Chris Farraday (Wahlberg) comes out of retirement to pull one last job, attempting to smuggle millions of dollars worth of forged banknotes from Panama.

If Mark Wahlberg is anything like the protagonist of Entourage, the HBO show inspired by his own experiences, it’s no wonder his resumé includes such low points as The Happening, Max Payne, and a trio of shameful remakes (The Truth About Charlie, Planet of the Apes, The Italian Job), as though a real-life equivalent of Turtle has been guiding his career from inside a haze of blunt smoke. Having recently turned 40, however, Wahlberg has also turned a corner: his anchoring performance in The Fighter (which he also produced) gifted Christian Bale an Oscar, while decent straight-man turns in Date Night and The Other Guys reinforced his comedy credentials. Now, the artist formerly known as Marky Mark has hit the top spot at the U.S. box office with this gritty, grainy and fitfully gripping heist movie, co-produced by Wahlberg and the UK’s own Working Title, and faithfully adapted from Óskar Jónasson’s 2008 Icelandic thriller Reykjavik-Rotterdam (not available in the UK), which Kormákur produced.

Like the original, Contraband loses points early on for its unapologetic reliance on the ‘ex-criminal-dragged-out-of-retirement-to-pull-one-last-job’ plot catalyst, a crime genre trope so ancient it should be claiming a pension of its own. Adding to this sense of familiarity are clichéd characters, of which Beckinsale’s by-the-numbers perfect-wife-in-peril being the main offender, and gifted actors in roles we’ve seen them play before: Giovanni Ribisi as a greasy, tattooed redneck, and Ben Foster reprising his Alpha Dog role as a grade-A fuck-up. Stronger support comes from Diego Luna, as the psychotic leader of a Panamanian crime cartel, and J.K.Simmons as the captain of the ship which the ‘heroes’ (read: the thieves and criminals we’re meant to root for) use to transport the titular contraband. (At least one member of the original cast, Icelandic-American Ólafur Darri Ólafson, reprises his role).
ContrabandWideSuch familiar elements aside, Contraband has much to offer audiences who prefer their armed robbery movies infused with the kind of gritty realism rarely found in recent genre entries such as Fast and Furious Five. Nevertheless, in the tradition of the genre’s most entertaining entries, the thieves’ plan is so complicated, it’s hard to imagine how they can possibly pull it off in the first place, never mind after things go, as they tend to in films of this kind, catastrophically wrong. Although the plot relies a little too heavily on contrivances, coincidences and predictable betrayals, the heist itself unfolds with a technical precision that would make David Mamet proud, and there’s a clever running joke (which only the audience is in on) involving what appears to be a paint-spattered tarpaulin, carelessly shoved in the back of the van which is being used to transport the ‘funny money’ Farraday’s gang is trying to steal.

Wahlberg is well within his comfort zone, surrounded by superior acting talent (as he is in all his best films, notably The Departed), selling the action scenes but never making us sweat as much as the material wants us to. Perspiration-creation duties are therefore handed to Kormákur, and having directed two of Iceland’s best-known films, Reykjavik 101 and Jar City, he makes the most of this opportunity to prove that he’s more than a match for even the larger-scale action scenes, igniting an armoured car robbery which, aside from giving the benchmark scene from Heat run for its money, is all the more impactful for arriving – like the director himself – seemingly out of nowhere.

VERDICT It’s not exactly put-your-manicurist-on-danger-money time, and Kate Beckinsale’s role is shamefully underwritten (especially for an actress capable of carrying a franchise), but Contraband is a cut about cookie-cutter heist thrillers, and Kormákur looks ready for the big time. ★★★

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