Will there someday be a movie where the “one last job” goes off without a hitch?
Not Contraband, anyway, which begins with that time-tested premise, then subjects its protagonist to a feature-length demonstration of Murphy’s Law. Chris Farraday (Mark Wahlberg) is the retiree runner reluctantly reactivated, a legend who once upon a time could slip anything into the Port of New Orleans, but who has since gone legit for the good of his young sons and wife, Kate (Kate Beckinsale, essentially wearing a target through the movie). When Kate's kid brother screws up a run for a roughneck drug smuggler (Giovanni Ribisi), Chris has to cover the loss by orchestrating and performing a comeback job, running counterfeit bills out of Panama City. His old confrere and partner, Sebastian (Ben Foster), is charged to look after the family while Chris is away.
Contraband was adapted from an Icelandic original, 2008’s Reykjavik-Rotterdam (in which Contraband’s director, Baltasar Kormákur, starred). The shift to the milieu of the blue-collar Big Easy is occasion for some bad accents, though cantaloupe-bicep'd star/producer Wahlberg mercifully refrains. If ever an actor accepted and cultivated his narrow patch of range, it’s Wahlberg, safely staying in his wheelhouse here, warily trundling into danger and delivering tough talk with his gasp-y, rising inflection, as though desperation were helium.
The characters are immediately comprehensible. Chris, despite his criminal history, is principled—he won’t import dope—and comfortable with his working-class Alpha status: He orders Schlitz at a wedding open bar and still open-mouth kisses his wife on the dance floor. Sebastian, in addition to being named “Sebastian,” also raises an attentive viewer’s suspicions by giving his townhouse a Crate & Barrel makeover, his aspirations of upward mobility a surefire sign, in the movie’s world, that there’s something shady about that guy.
The abiding tone of Kormákur’s film is nervous, prickly agitation, regardless of whether the content calls for it. This fits with the frantic scenes of Chris planning and executing, though in more slow-burn moments, the energy manifests itself in the distracting tic of a twitchy zoom lens. Contraband is best, then, when it is keeping up with the nuts and bolts of criminal work, while the job itself—sneaking goods onboard a boat under the noses of the crew, with the help of a few friends on the ship’s manifest—is a novel one, cinematically described.
There is a nicely underplayed running joke in Contraband involving a stolen priceless Jackson Pollock painting that is repeatedly mistaken for trash by uncultured thieves and customs officials. No one, however, could mistake Contraband for anything but what it is: a shift-job genre movie—not a bad day’s work, satisfied to match the blocky trudge of its star rather than attempt panache.