Reviewed by: David Graham

"What should simply be a diverting no-brainer is made considerably harder to swallow by the script's shallow handling of some unsavoury subject matter."

The world of illegal smuggling promises a fresh twist on the one-last-job crime thriller in this star-studded remake of Reyjavik-Rotterdam. Mark Wahlberg toplines but, as usual, risks fading into the wallpaper, almost overwhelmed by a high-class ensemble not exactly stretching themselves but still giving good value in the scene-stealing stakes. Icelandic director Baltasar Kormakur has previously found success with bittersweet comedy 101 Reykjavik and murder mystery Jar City, but what should simply be a diverting no-brainer is made considerably harder to swallow by the script's shallow handling of some unsavoury subject matter.

Chris Farraday has moved away from a life of lucrative goods-smuggling to concentrate on his wife and daughter, but when his young and naive brother-in-law ticks off the wrong hood, he finds himself having to get dirty again to erase the debt. Leaving his best friend Sebastian to protect his family, Farraday pulls together his most trusted men to run millions of dollars of counterfeit bills back from Panama. His underworld contacts turn out to be both a help and a hindrance, however, as unforeseen setbacks jeopardise everyone's safety, while a reptilian hoodlum turns up the heat back home.

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Kormakur obviously thinks Man On Fire is the greatest film ever made, as Contraband positively (make that negatively) reeks of the sort of slick grittiness that Tony Scott has made his forte. The uncomfortable but cathartic sense of amorality that informs Scott's work is present in spades, but here it's especially unpleasant for being so lily-livered; at least when Ridley's underling goes over-the-top into nastiness he does it with unapologetic gusto.

Here, the violence is throwaway to the point of being disturbing. There's something particularly despicable about the way poor Kate Beckinsale's character is treated. Her role is unforgivably under-written yet she's put through some of the roughest man-on-woman punishment since Patricia Arquette's sickening but at least affecting bathroom beatdown in True Romance. Of course, the film's credibility is further strained by the fact that the limber Underworld heroine could probably kick her co-stars' scrawny asses without breaking a sweat.

Farraday seems to have a never-ending supply of convenient crim contacts in every port, yet still manages to pull the wool over auhtorities' eyes despite being burdened with a level of infamy that would make Robin Hood seem like a nobody, while operating with all the subtlety of an inner-city Rambo. Given the amount of disreputable friends he has, the nature of his past is completely glossed over, and the implications of what he's doing are utterly ignored.

Meanwhile, a running gag involving a Jackson Pollock painting feels like an unnecessary ego massage for any highbrow viewers who may have stumbled upon the film by accident, leading to an entirely ungratifying happy ending that the characters are too ignorant to deserve.

Wahlberg is as dependable as ever in his usual everyman schtick, but he really needs to start taking more chances as an actor. It falls to Contraband's raft of talented thesps to enliven the lumpen material, even if most of their roles and performances are too reminiscent of their previous work in much better films. Giovanni Ribisi reprises his Rum Diary slither but with added venom, JK Simmons brings his Jonah Jamieson bluster from the Spider-Man series, while Ben Foster channels his Alpha Dog intensity again, and the weaselly double act of Lukas Haas and Caleb Landry Jones corner the market in background shiftiness. Diego Luna also turns up and unexpectedly stands out as a slobbish but deadly crimelord, exuding casual menace and psychotic charisma as he loafs around his body-strewn warehouse lair.

There are germs of interesting ideas - the methodology of the smugglers is occasionally ingenious, while a political point is made by how their presence seems to be accepted as a sideline opportunity for extra cash to the many blue collar workers they depend upon. But any excitement Contraband might have generated is spoiled by the woeful bromantic dialogue, ridiculous situations and an overbearing, inappropriate blues-rock soundtrack that makes it seem like everyone involved is having a knee-slappin' good time. The mid-section is also incoherent, which is surprising given the director's track record for handling convoluted narratives in a variety of genres.

Ultimately, Contraband's target audience will find it a change of scenery from the usual gangland heist thriller, and probably won't mind or even notice its underlying nefarious streak and weak concessions to pretension. Anyone else who isn't automatically swept along by the absurd shooting gallery action may find themselves questioning the film-makers' intentions in glamorising such a morally dubious business. Intellectually vacuous hokum at best, this represents a water-treading exercise for its stars and an infuriating step backwards for Kormakur.

Reviewed on: 17 Mar 2012
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Action thriller about a reluctant smuggler.
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Director: Baltasar Kormákur

Writer: Aaron Guzikowski, Arnaldur Indriðason, Óskar Jónasson

Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Caleb Landry Jones, Giovanni Ribisi, Ben Foster, Kate Beckinsale, Robert Wahlberg, Jason Mitchell, Paul LeBlanc, Lukas Haas, Amber Gaiennie, Kent Jude Bernard, David O'Hara, Jackson Beals, Jaqueline Fleming, Connor Hill

Year: 2012

Runtime: 109 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: US, UK, France


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