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January 17, 2012

You’d think that smuggling would be a natural subgenre of crime films, right next to the heist and con movies. Strangely enough, I’m having a hard time thinking of other significant examples before Contraband. It’s a little heavier on the action and lighter on the planning than I might otherwise like, but solid direction from Baltasar Kormákur — who produced and starred in the Icelandic original, Reykjavík-Rotterdam — and good performances from its cast more than sell this genre exercise.

Chris Farraday (Mark Wahlberg) was a smuggler working out of New Orleans, as was his father (William Lucking) before him. That is, before his father was incarcerated, throwing Chris a bit of a reality check. After marrying his wife, Kate (Kate Beckinsale), he moved across the river to Algiers to raise a family. These days he’s working installing security systems, ironically enough.

Chris was sharp, and great at what he did. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of Kate’s brother, Andy (Caleb Landry Jones). He still works as a smuggler, and most recently took an ill-advised job running over ten pounds of cocaine for a mobster named Tim Briggs (Giovanni Ribisi). When the ship is raided, Andy throws the package overboard; it would have been seized anyway, so this is just the cost of doing business. Briggs, naturally, doesn’t quite see it that way, and he says Andy has two weeks to come up with well over half a million dollars or he’ll be killed. To make matters worse, Briggs insists that the debt will then pass to Andy’s next of kin, which would be Chris and Kate and their two sons.

The only viable solution seems to be for Chris to go back for One Last Job. His father pulls a few strings from prison and gets Chris back onto his old ship, much to the chagrin of its captain (J.K. Simmons). Chris leaves Kate and the boys in the care of his brother, Sebastian (Ben Foster), and sets out to bring back fifteen million dollars in counterfeit currency from Panama. It’s a milk run, really, but the best-laid plans of mice and men go oft awry.

There’s plenty of red meat for genre fans; there are delays between the introductions of plot points and the revelations of their importance, and a nice fat reveal in the denouement. It’s a bit heavy on the action — where it’s not at its best — and light on the planning and details — where it’s a lot better — so it’s not really the greatest such movie, but it satisfies all the same.

The acting does a lot to help; Simmons is always fun to watch, and Wahlberg is consistently solid, though there’s less for him to work through here than there was in The Fighter. Chris really does come off with all the easy familiarity and confidence of a past-expert, though it’s a bit of a mystery how great he can be if he starts an important job by bringing along the guy who screwed up the last one.

But Ribisi is the scene-stealer in this film; he’s always been a great character actor since he fell into the offbeat/crazy bin, but Briggs stands out as one of his better roles. He picks it up and runs with it as far as he can go, and then walks a few blocks more. It’s this sort of effort from all the core cast that really makes enjoyable what could have been a tedious rehash of genre conventions.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.

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