Family can f*** you up. In Baltasar Kormákur's terse thriller Contraband, Mark Wahlberg plays Chris Farraday, a career criminal who's gone straight. He's happily married to Kate (Kate Beckinsale), loves his two growing boys, and is content to be a small business owner in the Algiers neighborhood of New Orleans. But then his young brother-in-law Andy (Caleb Landry Jones) screws up a drug deal, and it's up to Chris to fix it.
Andy's mistake is compounded because his "employer," Tim Briggs (Giovanni Ribisi), is a merciless sleazeball. Briggs took advantage of the void created when Chris quit the business and is now running things. When Chris tries to negotiate a settlement, Briggs refuses to accept anything less than full price in exchange for the drugs that Andy was supposed to smuggle into the country.
To save Andy's life, Chris comes up with a new plan that doesn't involve drugs, but does require a smuggling trip to Panama via a container ship. Chris takes his good friend and trusted ally Danny (Lukas Haas) along with Andy, leaving behind his best friend Sebastian (Ben Foster) to guard his wife and children from Briggs.
Kormákur produced and starred in 2008's Reykjavik-Rotterdam, directed by Óskar Jónasson, which serves as the basis for Contraband. I haven't seen the original, but our own Swarez gave it a positive review, while acknowledging, for example, that the script "might not be the most original." The remake, with a screenplay credited to Aaron Guzikowski, changes the locales and some of the other relationships between characters, but otherwise appears to follow the same pattern.
True enough, Contraband is not the most original thriller. But as far as delivering a movie that moves quickly through its paces while rarely insulting your intelligence, Kormákur and his team of collaborators come through with flying colors.
It helps that the script doesn't spill all the plot beans in one go; instead, it teases out enough information for more alert viewers to piece things together rather quickly, while allowing everyone else -- myself included -- to solve the puzzle moments ahead of the characters.
And those characters are well-defined; Chris, for example, has ample reason to become disgusted by the actions of others, but he's a sufficiently experienced thief to know better than to become distracted by his emotions. He remains focused on the task at hand, keeps his priorities straight, and sets his personal anger aside until he decides it's the right time to mete out revenge.
At this point of his career, Wahlberg is a reliable, likable presence, a working-class hero who avoids pretension like the plague. That fits Chris exactly, whether the script was tailored precisely to the actor or not; he's a good center for a thriller where the greatest pleasure comes from its ruthless efficiency.
Foster has developed into a magnetic personality, albeit a disreputable one whose motives are always in question; his grizzly charm is used to good effect. Ribisi tries out an unconvincing accent that I'm guessing is intended to be "Cajun," but it just sounds a bit silly and affected. Beckinsale and Haas fulfill their roles as needed, as does J.K. Simmons (as a gruff ship captain) and Diego Luna (as yet another criminal).
Contraband benefits especially from the cinematography by Barry Ackroyd, a longtime director of photography for Ken Loach, and more recently an Academy Award-nominee for The Hurt Locker. The look here is dark and gritty, making the warm-weather climes of New Orleans and Panama look positively chilly, even at high noon. Film editor Elísabet Ronaldsdóttir also worked on the original film, which probably helped in keeping it tight.
If Contraband doesn't quite keep you on the edge of your seat, it does make you sit up and take notice.
Contraband opens wide across the U.S. today. Check local listings for theaters and showtimes.