Thursday, 19 April 2012
Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Kate Beckinsale, Ben Foster, Lukas Haas, Giovani Ribisi
By Alan Bacchus
The success and quality of this film might come with some surprise. For a January doldrums release combined with a ho-hum trailer, there seemed to be no prestige associated with this picture. But dig into the production team involved and its quality and success is not surprising at all. The story of a working class smuggler gone straight but pulled back into his life of crime for one last job makes for a robust actioner in a relatively untapped milieu (port to port seaway lifestyle) told with high-energy plot-turning intensity.
The fact is Contraband is more than just a forgettable piece of studio fluff. First, it comes from Working Title Pictures, the British production company with great taste and genre range, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Shaun of the Dead, The Big Lebowski, Atonement, Bridget Jones. Mark Wahlberg’s also a producer, a fine one with surprisingly good taste. And the director in this endeavour is the Icelandic auteur Baltasar Kormakur, known for a varied career of art house (101 Reykjavik) and genre (the fine neo-noir piece A Little Piece of Heaven) pictures, but a consistently strong cinematic style, not to mention the lead actor (not director) of the original Icelandic production. But to execute an action thriller with Hollywood genre expectations? Aiding Kormakur is action lens master Barry Ackroyd, Paul Greengrass’s nimble DOP who handheld those masterpieces of action The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum. As such, Kormakur delivers.
Contraband is competitive with any moderately budgeted action film, but it was made outside of Hollywood. Wahlberg plays Chris Farraday, a regular working class family man in New Orleans. He and his pals seem to be tripping the life fantastic when his disreputable brother-in-law gets his nose into trouble in a smuggling run where he’s forced to dump his goods. But Chris is no ordinary Joe. He’s a reformed smuggler himself, forced back into the world of crime to repay the debt to his maniacal mob boss, Tim Briggs (Ribisi).
So Chris and his pals hatch one last plan to buy some counterfeit money in Panama and smuggle it back into New Orleans. This begins a wild ride, an actioner with a pot boiling plot that turns just about every 15 minutes.
The film cleverly moves from the local gangster plotting in New Orleans to the open waters aboard a transport ship wherein Chris and company have to quietly plot their heist under the nose of the tight ass ship captain (JK Simmons). And when the crew lands in Panama, suddenly we’re in a new country and almost a new movie, an action film anchored by a raucous heist of an armoured car. Kormakur cleverly connects the action to the home front by bringing Chris’s wife and kid into the fold as an added threat.
Then Chris has to get back on the boat with the counterfeit money, which makes for an adventure unto itself, before sailing back and making the final deal with the slimy Briggs. All this plot-turning action is executed with a great sense of pace and strong muscular production value as good as anything at the Tony Scott level of action filmmaking.
Barry Ackroyd’s camera isn’t as shaky as it is with Greengrass, but the stamp of realism is there. The production value achieved with the relatively small budget is admirable. By moving the action from the harbour to inland to the transport ship, Panama and back to New Orleans, it gives the film a larger quality than what was probably on the balance sheet.
But Contraband succeeds because everything is played for real, from the authentic New Orleans locations to the working class men not that far removed from you or me. It's another deceiving performance from Mark Wahlberg, not unlike his modest performance in The Fighter, a hero under extraordinary circumstances played with a humble understatedness. Wahlberg’s ability to be tough and tender at the same time is a rare quality, seemingly innate to him as a person. It’s just one stop in a remarkable overachieving career of a former one-hit wonder rapper and underwear pitchman, now an influential Hollywood star and producer.
Contraband is available on Blu-ray and DVD from Universal Home Entertainment.