Mark Wahlberg has made a name for himself in Hollywood as a tough-guy lead with a heart of gold, and from the outside, his new film Contraband could be perceived as more of the same from the Oscar-nominated actor. But the American remake of Reykjavik-Rotterdam–which is directed by the original film’s auteur and star, Baltasar Kormakur–manages to offer a slightly different take on Wahlberg’s typical role, and provides some unique twists on the classic caper story.
In Contraband, Wahlberg plays Chris Farraday, a notoriously clever ex-smuggler who got out of the shady business years ago and now runs a home-security business. He’s a family man–something the film hammers home repeatedly–and he’s given up the risky lifestyle for his wife (Kate Beckinsale) and children. The lifestyle hasn’t given up on him though, and he’s forced to go on one last run in order to save the life of his brother-in-law (Caleb Landry Jones), a young smuggler who’s run afoul of a sadistic boss (Giovanni Ribisi).
Throughout the film, the allure of smuggling is juxtaposed against the dangers of addiction. Quitting it–and more importantly, staying out of it–is a constant struggle for Farraday and everyone in his circle of friends and family. Early on, they begin comparing smuggling stories during a drunken wedding reception, only to grow uncomfortably uncertain when the possibility of another job is put on the table. Meanwhile, Farraday’s best friend and former smuggling partner, Sebastian (Ben Foster), divides his time between Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and keeping his own construction company afloat, while Farraday himself throws his mind into his business and loved ones to keep it off the old ways.
Back in the Saddle
When troubles arise and Farraday is forced back into smuggling, Wahlberg does an admirable job of showing the subtle changes to his character since leaving the lifestyle, injecting a greater sense of urgency into everything he does and the decisions he makes. He’s a family man now, after all (as the film keeps reminding its audience, sometimes unnecessarily), and he’s only doing what he has to do in order to protect his friends and loved ones.
Inevitably, Farraday’s perfect plan goes awry, and when the action does begin, it rolls along at a fast pace, with one explosive scene leading into the next. A tense chase leads into a gunfight which leads into another no-brakes ride through the criminal underworld, with only the briefest interludes to show you how crazy things are getting for Farraday’s family and friends.
If there’s one thing that the film does really well that sets it apart from other caper films, it’s the perspective it offers on the smuggling trade and the convoluted lengths people will go through to get illegal goods into the country. From the way Farraday gets onboard the ship with his stake money, to the method he employs to get several pallets of counterfeit cash back to the U.S., the film is a study in both criminal ingenuity and international trade enforcement–and like any good caper film, Farraday and his team are like a grimy, grease-stained version of the Ocean’s 11 crew.
Rooting for the hero is optional
However, as I mentioned earlier, Contraband offers a slightly different take on Wahlberg’s typical heart-of-gold antihero. Unlike most films with characters engaging in less-than-legal behavior for the greater good, the film makes it hard to root for any of its characters – even Farraday.
Despite all of the obvious reminders the film provides, it’s hard to feel like Farraday is really the good guy in it all. Faced with his brother-in-law’s predicament, he seems to jump back into the smuggling business a little too eagerly–and his wife seems to make far less of a fuss over his potential imprisonment (or death) than one would expect. There’s very little time spent deliberating over whether a return to smuggling is the best solution to their family’s problems, and unlike the usual case with drug addictions, no one seems to step up and say, “Hey, maybe this isn’t the best idea.”
By far the most damning moment for Wahlberg’s character occurs shortly after he boards the boat for his last, great smuggling run. While stashing their money, Farraday’s brother-in-law asks him whether he’s missed the smuggling scene, and Wahlberg’s character responds–a little too quickly and enthusiastically–that yes, he certainly does (but don’t tell his wife).
Over the course of the film, the characters show little remorse for the consequences of their actions, even when innocent people are caught in the crossfire. Each problem brought on by their criminal activity is resolved with a criminal solution, and the cycle both perpetuates itself and becomes more damaging to everyone caught in its widening circle as the movie goes on. And yet the characters don’t seem to mind any of this, acting as if every decision – no matter how illegal, unwise, or clearly fraught with danger – is the only option they have.
Nevertheless, none of this reflects poorly on the performances of the film’s cast, who each do the best with what they’re given and some – most notably Ribisi and J.K. Simmons, who plays the ship’s captain – clearly go the extra distance to make their characters memorable. Wahlberg is less the action hero and more the clever rogue this time around, and he continues to show a great grasp of characters that possess a subtle genius under all those muscles.
In the end, though, it remains hard to root for the cast of Contraband. After all is said and done, the action-reaction relationship feels overbalanced in favor of the former, and you’re left feeling like the film is distinctly lacking in, well… lessons learned. There’s a somewhat guilty feeling, too–as if Farraday and his family and friends could stand to have a few more bad things happen to them, so they think twice about doing this sort of thing again.
As a gritty caper movie and vehicle for Wahlberg and his impressive supporting cast, Contraband will certainly find more than a few fans. All criticism aside, it’s a fun, entertaining movie that keeps a great pace and offers some unique twists on the genre. Where it falls short is in the deeper analysis of the characters and the themes of the film–something that might not be a concern to mainstream audiences looking for a good popcorn-fueled adventure.