Chugging along in 'Ocean's' wake
By Michael O'Sullivan
Friday, Jan 13, 2012
"Contraband" is like an "Ocean's Eleven" movie, minus the glamour. Taut and suspenseful for the most part, the thriller substitutes a wily, working-class Mark Wahlberg (as smuggler Chris Farraday) for George Clooney's urbane con artist, Danny Ocean, and replaces the globe-trotting milieu of casinos and museums with a gritty, claustrophobic freight ship.
Watching it leaves you feeling less buzzed than jittery and slightly nauseated. If the "Ocean's" movies were martinis, "Contraband" is a thermos full of coffee.
In context, that's kind of a compliment. "Contraband" is a remake of the Icelandic film "Reykjavik-Rotterdam." Directed by actor-director Baltasar Kormakur - who played the lead in the 2008 original - it has a gloomy, propulsive, working-class energy that feels slightly more European than Hollywood-y.
If anything, it might be too exhausting.
When we first meet Chris, he has left the smuggling game to raise a family and build a legitimate business in suburban New Orleans. But when his wife's younger brother, Andy (Caleb Landry Jones), winds up in hock to a volatile drug dealer (Giovanni Ribisi), Chris is forced to take up his old ways to pay off Andy's debt.
Actually, it's more to keep Andy from being shot in the head by Ribisi's Briggs. Playing against type, Ribisi makes for a compelling, and frighteningly unhinged, villain. Briggs also threatens Chris's wife (Kate Beckinsale) and his two young sons, unless Chris comes up with the money.
As Chris might say, whaddya gonna do?
A quick plan is thrown together to hop down to Panama on the next freighter and come back with a pile of counterfeit currency. But the plan - to be executed by Chris, Andy and a rogue's gallery of blue-collar accomplices who work on the ship - spins rapidly, and bloodily, out of control, thanks to almost unbelievable betrayals and complications that leave the mission, and Chris's family, in jeopardy.
The plot also leaves a lot of dead bodies in its wake. "Contraband" is considerably more violent, and even more testosterone-centric, than any of the "Ocean's" movies, with the added distastefulness that almost all of the victims are anonymous Latino gangsters - collateral damage when things begin to go south during the ship's nail-biting stopover in Panama. Apparently, we're not supposed to care about them. The body count, however, seriously undermines Chris's claim to antihero status. Although he doesn't kill anyone, Chris has a lot of blood on his work clothes by the end of the movie.
That said, "Contraband" delivers certain rewards, both expected and unexpected. There's an especially clever plot twist involving a stolen Jackson Pollock painting that, in the course of things, gets repeatedly mistaken for trash.
With the exception of Wahlberg, "Contraband" doesn't boast any marquee names. Chris's accomplices in Panama are played by Lukas Haas, Lucky Johnson and Olafur Darri Olafsson, with a slight boost in star power from Ben Foster, who plays his best friend back home.
As Chris himself says about his crew, "It's no 'A-Team,' but it's the best we can do." As it turns out, the boys get the job done.
Contains violence, frequent obscenity, drug use and other lawbreaking.