Saturday, January 14, 2012


Wanted: Semi-Domesticated Action Hero.  Mops, Vacuums, Drug Runs.  (Takes Out The Trash, Too.)

Mark Wahlberg as Chris Farraday in Baltasar Kormákur's action-drama "Contraband". 
Universal Pictures   


Omar P.L. Moore/        Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW                                           
ay, January 14, 2012

Baltasar Kormákur's "Contraband", based on "Reykjavik-Rotterdam", a 2008 Icelandic film that its native Mr.
Kormákur starred in, is an entertaining, light-rooted action drama that relaxes its muscles and laughs things up.  Everything is tongue and cheek in a film that has the feel of Michael Mann's "Heat" in the cadence of its dialogue and some situations during the film's first half, and the manic quick-fire tension of Tony Scott's pulsating dramas in its second.  The film eventually settles into the director's own calm, deliberate style, and it works.  "Contraband" opened yesterday across the U.S. and Canada.

Chris Farraday (Mark Wahlberg) is a family man first.  Securing the family and his home security company are his business.  A former drug smuggler, Chris is happily retired and taking care of his wife Kate (Kate Beckinsale) and their two sons.  Kate's brother Andy (Caleb Landry Jones) is in knee deep to a petty drug gangster Briggs (Giovanni Ribisi), who wants the drugs he's owed by yesterday or Andy, Kate, and Chris's sons are toast.  Chris inevitably helps his brother-in-law by going to bat one last time and getting his hands dirty.  He recruits a motley un-Ocean's Eleven-minus-seven crew to help out.  And boy, are they efficient!  While Chris is away, his best friend Sebastian (Ben Foster) watches over his family.

"Contraband" is a smart, methodical, gritty action drama about the joy of being bad.  There's no policing the bad guys or even the supposed good ones.  The director leaves these wildcats to their own devices, and they happily oblige.  Mr. Ribisi, who has lately turned to chewing up scenery as if he'd been a month without meals ("The Rum Diary"), does so again here as Briggs, the baddest jive talker on the block.  Like most of the players on display Briggs' bark is worse than his bite, and the director restrains the violence to a degree, or at least the impulse to exercise it, an unusual feat in an R-rated film. 

Mr. Ribisi isn't the only amped up actor; J.K. Simmons entertains as a captain on the ship to Panama that Chris is using to smuggle money and drugs.  Appropriately named Captain Camp, Mr. Simmons growls and snarls away.  Camp knows of Chris's history of exploits and, in true comic style consistent with the overriding flavor of "Contraband", immediately relegates Chris to mopping floors and vacuuming on the ship.  The domesticated endeavor seems thankless (a label that is appropriately sticks for the talented Ms. Beckinsale's damsel-in-distress Kate character), but the script by Aaron Guzikowski (based on Arnaldur Indriðason and Óskar Jónasson's "Reykjavik" script) allows the demotion its own clever implications. 

The pace of "Contraband" is nimble, very much tongue-in-cheek.  Each of the snarlers in chief (including the heavier Diego Luna) looks as if they could break out into a smile at any moment.  Mr. Wahlberg, a far better actor than he's given credit for (aside from "The Departed" see "The Lovely Bones", "The Fighter") smiles a lot in this film but only has to use his musculature when it's absolutely necessary.  We know of his physical prowess and Mr. Wahlberg's Chris never has to work too hard.  He grimaces only at the shenanigans he encounters and not at the stress of having to flex super non-steroid-induced muscles.  Chris makes promises and tries keeping them amidst the improbabilities that will inevitably intrude.

Mr. Kormákur creates expanses and atmospheres and builds both well, yet paradoxically boxes in his characters into tight spaces, their primary existence as cargo by default.  They are commodities, literally and figuratively, and several characters will be packaged as such.  Yet no bad or good guy is really harmed in the making of this action movie, although one unlucky black guy named Walter, we're told, dies off camera.

When was the last time you saw an action film and knew that all of the players were having fun on the big screen?  Think back to last year.  You'd be hard pressed to come up with one.  In the phenomenally good French thriller "Point Blank", the film's climax was one of relief.  In the admirably relentless "Fast Five" most of the smiles and laughs were saved until the end (the first "end", if you will.)  In "Contraband", the grins and teeth-baring dot the treacherous landscape throughout, and even when things get predictable, you have to admire the relaxed way that Mr. Kormákur and company go about their business.  I was relaxed watching this frivolity and admired every second of it.  "Contraband" is a good way to begin 2012 at the movies.

With: Lukas Haas, Kent Jude Bernard, David O'Hara, Connor Hill, Jackson Beals, Jacqueline Fleming, Jason Mitchell.

"Contraband" is rated R by the Motion Picture Association Of America for violence, pervasive language and brief drug use.  The film's running time is one hour and 50 minutes.

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