Blu-Ray Review: Contraband

Mark Wahlberg stars in a smuggling film that plays like a really boring, forgettable version of Gone in 60 Seconds.

William Bibbianiby William Bibbiani


At the risk of undervaluing my profession, time is the only critic that matters. No matter what audiences or pundits think at the time of a film’s release, all that really counts in the long run is that the memory lingers, whether you liked it (preferably) or not (Batman and Robin). Contraband opened in theaters just this past January, and I watched it on Blu-ray only a few days ago in preparation for this review. So it says a lot that the details of Contraband are already slipping through my brain like actual contraband, so let’s make this review quick before my brain replaces all the memories of this milquetoast thriller with reruns of “Treme.” I really hope David Morse and Melissa Leo get together soon, don't you?

Contraband stars Mark Wahlberg as Chris Farraday, a former world-class smuggler who turned legit for his wife. Because if your choices are long, thankless months at sea or going home to Kate Beckinsale every night, that’s no choice at all. Problems arise when his brother-in-law, X-Men: First Class’s Caleb Landry Jones, is forced to ditch his cargo on a smuggling operation gone wrong. Now he owes money to a dangerous criminal played by Giovanni Ribisi, and Farraday has to perform one last job to save his family.

If you’re paying attention, you might have noticed that the plot is essentially the same as the remake of Gone in 60 Seconds, except this time Giovanni Ribisi plays the bad guy instead of the brother, and instead of protracted scenes of attractive people in car chases we get protracted scenes of ugly guys hanging out on boats. For the record, Gone in 60 Seconds was awful, but memorably so. The utter mediocrity of Contraband is somehow worse. It’s simply a dull experience. A single shootout, not that the film necessarily needed a shootout to fix its problems, punches things up considerably at the halfway point: the operation has gone horribly wrong and an unreasonable time limit has been imposed, so the only thing for Wahlberg and his brother Lukas Haas to do is participate in an armored car robbery that plays like the opening of Heat crossed with the end of Heat. If only the rest of the film had been so eventful, Contraband might have been worth bringing into the country in the first place.

Yes, Contraband is a remake of the Icelandic thriller Reykyavik-Rotterdam, which I have not seen. I suspect it plays better than this, even if Contraband is a shot-for-shot remake, since the cast of the American version is on auto-pilot. Poor Kate Beckinsale has nothing to do but play the damsel in distress, Wahlberg is stuck in stoic mode, Giovanni Ribisi is at his Giovanni Ribisi-est and Ben Foster is utterly wasted as the character who has suspiciously little to do, so you can probably guess what sort of formulaic dramatic revelations are in store for him at the end of the film.

Forcing Contraband into a thriller mold was probably a terrible mistake, since by necessity the story includes long stretches where the heroes and villains are separated, and by entire countries. It’s hard to build tension when the actions and reactions are kept at arm’s length the entire time. A great film could certainly be made on the subject of contemporary smuggling, but the nature of the occupation is based on suspense more than actual incident. The threat of being caught would be draped over the protagonists like a wet woolen blanket, giving the filmmakers ample opportunity to milk the slower scenes for tension. Instead, the film wants to have a full bottle of wine and a drunk wife, and plays like conventional Hollywood genre entertainment even though all the actual events in movie feel like they belong in a Michael Mann joint.

Contraband steals its way onto Blu-ray with a transfer that perfectly captures the film’s rather ugly look, and special features including deleted scenes, two behind the scenes documentaries and a commentary track with the director and producers. It’s an admirable effort, but I’d rather spend my time watching a PBS documentary on actual smugglers than anything related to Contraband. It's the most forgettable movie since Unforgettable. If you don't know what I'm talking about, there you go. That's how people will feel about Contraband in 16 years. Actually, strike that. Give it a couple of weeks.