Contraband (Universal) is a classic early-January release—the kind of middling-but-watchable heist thriller that, days after seeing it, already feels like something you caught half of on a plane two years ago. This story of a former smuggler pulled back into the business against his will is a remake of the 2008 Icelandic film Reykjavik-Rotterdam, and is directed by that film’s producer and star, Baltasar Kormákur. The setting has been moved to New Orleans, and the broodingly handsome Kormákur has been replaced by the unbroodingly handsome Mark Wahlberg, whose presence is the only reason to consider stirring from your post-holiday languor to see this movie.
I won’t try to make the case, as Adam Sternbergh half-jokingly did on the Times’ 6th Floor blog early this week, that Wahlberg has been cheated of his due as the greatest actor of his generation. Though there’s no question he’s been wonderful in movies as diverse as Three Kings, Boogie Nights, The Fighter, and I Heart Huckabees, Wahlberg is no accent-mastering shape-shifter, no saturnine Leo Di Caprio or whimsical Johnny Depp: What you see is what you get. But this true-to-his-word decency, this simplicity, is precisely what you cast Wahlberg for. I had plenty of time to consider the actor’s appeal during the unspooling of the otherwise nondescript Contraband, and here’s what I came up with: Mark Wahlberg is attractive because he seems genuinely, effortlessly masculine rather than anxiously, compensatorily macho. You believe he could singlehandedly spearhead an international smuggling scheme while also believing he’s a sweet, vulnerable family man hopelessly in love with his wife. Liam Neeson shares this badass-yet-tender quality; it’s served both actors well in the current action-hero phase of their careers, and (speaking purely as a film scholar) it’s catnip to the ladies.
Chris Farraday, Wahlberg’s character in Contraband, is the gone-straight scion of a notorious family of smugglers. At his friend Danny’s (Lukas Haas) wedding, the drunken reminiscences are all variations on, “Could this guy smuggle or could he smuggle?” Chris now runs a legit business installing private security systems, but he’s drawn back into the life when his pea-brained brother-in-law Andy (Caleb Landry Jones) botches a job delivering drugs to a local small-time hood, Tim Briggs (Giovanni Ribisi). In order to pay off Andy’s debt, and keep the psychotic Tim away from his wife and children, Chris agrees to pull off one last big job—no reformed criminal in a movie apparently ever having seen a one-last-big-job movie.
The resulting plan involves American currency counterfeited in Panama, a getaway van in a storage container, J.K. Simmons as a mustachioed ship’s captain, and a stolen Jackson Pollock that at one point gets toted through a car chase and a gunfight, giving new meaning to the term “action painting.” This smuggling plot doesn’t make much sense, but it’s a lot more fun than the dreary back-at-home storyline that has Chris’ gorgeous but blank-faced wife Kate (Kate Beckinsale) getting threatened by the nasty Briggs and sexually harassed by Chris’ best friend Sebastian (Ben Foster).
Contraband’s problem lies, in part, with its heedless mishmash of acting styles. Beckinsale is inexpressive to the point of near-somnolence, as if her character has an undisclosed heroin habit, while Ribisi gives a performance that’s so mannered and flamboyant it’s exhausting to watch. Tim Briggs is an interestingly non-archetypal villain for a movie of this sort: neither a mastermind nor a thug but more of a straight-up scumbag, a scrawny loser with a wheedling high-pitched voice and taste for other people’s pain. But Ribisi is way too pleased with the distinctive voice and gestures he’s created for this context-free bogeyman. Tim Briggs seems to exist in a different movie than his fellow characters; in the few moments when hero and villain come face to face, the contrast between Wahlberg’s stoic understatement and Ribisi’s gonzo hot-dogging is comical.
There’s more than one cause for unintended laughter in Contraband—including the cognitively dissonant fact that no one in Chris Farraday’s loyal band of co-smugglers seems to notice that his every idea backfires spectacularly. But there are also a few moments that provoke intended laughter, among them some memorably filthy man-banter and a very funny twist involving J.K. Simmons in boxer shorts. If you enjoy watching Mark Wahlberg do that action-movie thing he does—a thing involving hidden cash belts and judicious ass-kicking and maritally sanctioned shirtlessness—you could do worse than to spend your next plane ride watching Contraband.