Perhaps it generated more excitement in its original guise, but this English remake of the Icelandic smuggling tale “Reykjavik-Rotterdam” is a dreary jumble that engenders more tedium and confusion than thrills. Even with Mark Wahlberg in the lead, “Contraband” is a shipment it’s easy to label return to sender, especially since it arrives so soon after the far superior actioner “Ghost Protocol.”
Wahlberg plays Chris Farraday, an erstwhile master smuggler who followed in the footsteps of his now-jailed father Bud (William Lucking) in setting up clever schemes to bring stuff into the port of New Orleans by cleverly concealing it on transport vessels. But he’s given up the life, settling down with his wife Kate (Kate Beckinsale) and their two young sons and running a legit home-security business.
But Chris is “pulled back in,” to use the old “Godfather” phrase, when his doofus brother-in-law Andy (Caleb Landry Jones) dumps a bag of cocaine in the drink when confronted by fed inspectors and finds himself deeply in debt to threatening drug boss Tim Briggs (Giovanni Ribisi). Chris has to make up the loss or find his family in Briggs’ crosshairs.
So Chris decides to undertake one last job, bringing in a stash of counterfeit money from Panama on a ship commanded by the officious, rude—and aptly named—Captain Camp (J.K. Simmons) by stowing it in a space behind a false wall. To tell the truth, this hardly seems a plan worthy of a fellow with Chris’ stellar reputation in the trade, but when the deal turns sour, drugs get involved and the ship is boarded by investigators, things get dicey. They’re not so good back home, either, where Kate and the kids—whom Chris has left under the protection of his old buddy Sebastian Abney (Ben Foster), a recovering alcoholic and would-be entrepreneur—are menaced by Briggs and his thugs.
It wouldn’t be fair to reveal all the contortions in the plot, but it’s more than kosher to point out that none of them is particularly smart or surprising; indeed, most are pretty ugly, and the characters act in very dumb ways. (That’s especially true of Kate, who’s nothing more than a pathetic damsel-in-distress, but Andy runs her a close second. One wonders how stupid Chris must be to have married into such an inept family.) There’s a twist at the end that’s telegraphed early on and should shock nobody.
Such inferior material would need a lot more verve in the telling to come out of the doldrums than it gets here. Baltasar Kormakur and his cinematographer Barry Ackroyd try to jack up the tension with jittery, hand-held camera moves, and editor Elisabet Ronaldsdottir attempts to spice up the curiously leaden action sequences with rapid-fire, machine-gun splicing (particularly in a sequence involving an armored-car heist), but the result is just a muddled mess.
Wahlberg doesn’t help matters, playing Faraday in a laid-back, Stallone-esque mode that makes the fellow a bore. By contrast both Ribisi and Foster overplay so wildly that many of their scenes are unintentionally comic. Camp is supposed to be a figure of fun, and Simmons brings his patented snarl to bear—exactly what we’ve seen before in the “Spider-Man” movies. Beckinsale is totally wasted in a part that’s all scared reaction, and Jones does the buffoonish bit all too convincingly. And while Lukas Haas has a few good moments, Diego Luna is almost unrecognizable in what amounts to a cameo. (Of course, he might well prefer it that way.)
Few genre flicks are as dispiriting as a dull, inert action movie. And that’s what “Contraband” is.