Chris Farraday in Contraband is another “made for Mark Wahlberg” part, the kind that allows this Boston-born star the chance to tap into his own tough upbringing experiences of being on the wrong side of the law, while showing a softie side. Although perfectly cast in the likes of Four Brothers, The Departed and The Fighter, like his comical Terry Hoitz role in The Other Guys, Contraband is not all grit but has some surprising hidden wit, complete with a running joke threaded through for the audience’s amusement in a tale of corruption, deception and good ol’ family values that excuses all the bad behaviour.
Chris Farraday (Wahlberg) long ago abandoned his life of crime, but after his brother-in-law, Andy (Caleb Landry Jones), botches a drug deal for his ruthless boss, Tim Briggs (Giovanni Ribisi), Chris is forced back into doing what he does best – running contraband-to settle Andy’s debt. Chris is a legendary smuggler and quickly assembles a crew with the help of his best friend, Sebastian (Ben Foster), for one final run to Panama and back, hoping to return with millions in counterfeit bills. Things quickly fall apart and with only hours to reach the cash, Chris must use his rusty skills to successfully navigate a treacherous criminal network of brutal drug lords, cops and hit men before his wife, Kate (Kate Beckinsale), and sons become their target.
Seasick-inducing, handheld camerawork aside at the start, Icelandic filmmaker Baltasar Kormákur’s Contraband settles down to gradually become an adrenaline-throbbing heist that doesn’t drop the intensity ball for one second, complete with a corrupt New Orleans setting and stellar cast fit for purpose. From Wahlberg to Foster to Ribisi, each actor embodies the kind of role we’ve seen them play time again, naturally making the status quo believable. The only initial oddity to get used to is Ribisi’s chipmunk voice, but his violent, weasel ways soon put to bed any giggles that arise. As a Brit, a bedrangled-looking Beckinsale is also fully convincing as Farraday’s suffering wife, getting the accent and battle-harden characteristics down to a tee as a tough mother prepared to defend, whatever the costs.
Like a less slick Ocean’s flick, most of the detail of the heist in Contraband – including lots of different and intriguing ways of smuggling onboard a larger container ship – is as paramount to the makeup of the plot as the big-screen action. It doesn’t disappoint on the thrills and spills either, allowing hard man Wahlberg the arena to shine in the best way he knows how. Making a mockery of the law and authority provides escapist moments of pleasure too, demonstrating the lighter side of the dangerous work, while playing to our sense of deviance. It’s the potent Robin Hood mentality at play again, with loveable rogues just righting the injustices in life, without necessarily changing their own spots.
As familiar and generic as some of the happenings in Contraband actually are, Kormákur’s thriller sets sail with enough puff, dynamics and intrigue to see it safely dock at the end of its voyage, complete with devilish humour and an expert lead at the helm in Wahlberg to tie up all the loose ends. It’s as physical as its environment of tough shipping and hardened personalities, and uses these features to set it aside from the standard heist movie, making for a solid, gutsy and realistic watch.