The fates enjoy ironic twists almost as much as robbers like open vaults. And you’d think by now movie crooks would’ve figured out it is simply bad luck trying to pull off “one last job.” Those famous last words ensure calamity – the stalling of the getaway car or a spooked accomplice getting greedy.
Our latest example is Contraband, a fast-simmering crime potboiler with Mark Wahlberg doing most of the splashing around.
Wahlberg is Chris Farraday, a New Orleans security contractor forced back to a life of crime to square family accounts with a drug dealer (Giovanni Ribisi). According to fellow crooks, Chris was once “the Houdini…, the Lennon and McCartney of smuggling”– an intriguing cocktail of talents, for sure.
He’s also one cocky little Irish rooster, with a crew as tight as his T-shirts. “Have you ever been convicted of espionage, sedition or treason?” a bored law official asks him early on his final misadventure.
“Together?” Chris says with a smirk.
Wahlberg’s character clearly enjoys getting back in the game. And after watching Tom Cruise make heroism look like torture in the latest Mission: Impossible, it’s fun seeing a relaxed, confident action star go about his business. Chris’s crime comeback appears to be going well, too. He’s off to Central America, running counterfeit money out of Panama.
But then our hero makes his mistake, advising wife, Kate (Kate Beckinsale), “Nothing is going to go wrong, I promise.” This is it – the last job.
Sure enough, Chris is soon confronting the combined forces of Panama, New Orleans and Murphy’s Law – the rule that states that anything that can possibly go wrong with a last heist generally does.
Based on a 2008 Icelandic film, Reykjavik-Rotterdam, Contraband is careful to work Wahlberg’s regular-guy charm. Early on, Chris and Kate attend a wedding. Open bar, anything you want to drink. No vodka and cranberry for Chris, however. He orders Schlitz, the beer that made Milwaukee famous.
And drinks it right out of the can!
The film also has a good running gag about a stolen Jackson Pollock painting that is mistaken, at one point, for a splattered tarp.
Contraband would be even more fun if filmmaker Baltasar Kormakur (star of Reykjavik-Rotterdam) could have figured out what to do with co-star Beckinsale. While Chris is committing piracy on the high seas, she’s left at home, being guarded by a twitchy pal of Chris’s named – uh-oh! – Sebastian (Ben Foster).
Playing a blonde with her roots showing, Beckinsale seems up for a scrap, but the film gives her nothing to do but get clobbered.
The rest of the cast delivers broad, flavourful performances. Ribisi connects as the sadistic drug kingpin, dawdling on his line readings with an elastic Southern drawl, as if he researched his role watching Strother Martin bully prison gang crews in Cool Hand Luke. Mark’s older brother, Robert Wahlberg, is properly haunting as a morose Irish Terminator. Elsewhere, J.K. Simmons and Diego Luna ( Y tu mama tambien) show up in effective cameos.
Contraband also has a good, churning rhythm-and-blues soundtrack, with Crawling King Snake John Lee Hooker’s hoodoo voice creeping out of theatre speakers. Though it never quite has us by the lapels, the film is a solid, workmanlike action flick. Although one could argue it would go down better at home on a DVD with your feet up on the coffee table.
And a cold can of beer in hand.
Special to The Globe and Mail
- Directed by Baltasar Kormakur
- Written by Aaron Guzikowski
- Starring Mark Wahlberg, Kate Beckinsale, Ben Foster and Giovanni Ribisi
- Classification: 14A
- 2.5 stars