Contraband - Mark Wahlberg and Ben Foster
Former smuggler Chris Farraday (Mark Wahlberg) and best friend Sebastian Abney (Ben Foster) plot a complicated comeback caper © 2011 Universal Studios

Once you get past the incongruous Boston accent of New Orleans resident Chris Farraday (Mark Wahlberg), this fast-paced blue-collar crime caper has more going for it than any 11, 12 or 13 Soderbergh-slick heist flicks.

Former smuggler Chris has cleaned up his act and now has a loving wife named Kate (an oddly blond Kate Beckinsale), two young sons and a legit small business installing home alarms. His not-so-lucky father is serving time, and Chris warned Kate’s dopey younger brother Andy (Caleb Landry Jones) against trying to follow in his felonious footsteps. But do kids these days listen? God forbid!

Andy’s attempt to transport a gym bag’s worth of cocaine by ship ends with disastrous results. Quite unpleased that antsy Andy threw the goods overboard during a customs raid, tattooed badass Tim Briggs (a demented and drawling Giovanni Ribisi) threatens to kill him and his entire extended family unless Andy comes up with $700,000 in compensation.

Contraband - Mark Wahlberg, Kate Beckinsale and Connor Hill
Chris Farraday (Mark Wahlberg), wife Kate (Kate Beckinsale) and eldest son Michael (Connor Hill) have bigger problems than math homework © 2011 Universal Studios

That means it’s time for Chris to get back in the game for the cliché One Last Job, with a little logistical support from his recovering-alcoholic best friend Sebastian Abney (Ben Foster). Although that set-up is anything but original, the creative mechanics of how Chris and company strategize, improvise and compensate for a boatload of complications are edge-of-your-seat entertaining.

Wahlberg mostly keeps Chris cool and in control, giving the character a competent get-the-job-done professionalism even when things go very wrong. He’s lucky and likable, but not superheroic, stylish or suave.

The movie’s two most impressive settings are an anything but glamourous container ship and the very seedy back streets of the Panama Canal zone, where Chris hopes to pick up a van’s worth of counterfeit currency. His usual supplier has been supplanted by a hair-trigger punk named Gonzalo (Diego Luna), who recruits Chris into a considerably more high-risk side project.

J.K. Simmons is another standout supporting player as the ship’s contemptuous and suspicious Captain Camp, who knows enough about Chris’ background that he refers to him as “the spawn of Bud Farraday.” He’s also the closest thing that passes for comic relief, with a seeming fetish for carpet cleaning.

Director Baltasar Kormákur, who produced and starred in the 2008 Icelandic film Reykjavik-Rotterdam on which Contraband is based, keeps the time-running-out tension high for both Chris and his threatened family back home. Kormákur is good at everything from shootouts and car chases to uncomfortable face-to-face confrontations.

The screenplay by Aaron Guzikowski (based on Arnaldur Indriðason and Óskar Jónasson’s original) is taut, tense and includes more than one unexpected twist.

When it comes to satisfying crime thrillers, Contraband is the real thing.

[Rating: 3.5 stars]

Contraband is release in theatres this Friday, January 13, 2012


James Dawson

Jim is Film Review Online's Los Angeles based reviewer.