Review: 'Contraband' Operates by the Numbers, Loses Count

Thu Jan 12, 2012 6:10pm EST

While watching “Contraband,” I was reminded of the recent passing of Leonard Stern, inventor of the Mad Libs party game. Mad Libs have entertained people for decades, and no doubt taught countless children the parts of speech, but they seemingly also inspired the screenplay for this dreary, generic movie.

Mark Wahlberg stars as a brilliant [SMUGGLER] who is forced to commit [ONE LAST JOB] to save the life of his [BROTHER-IN-LAW] only to discover that he’s being betrayed by [CHARACTER WHO SEEMS SUSPICIOUSLY EXTRANEOUS IN THE MOVIE’S FIRST THIRTY SECONDS].

Directed by Baltasar Kormákur (who played the lead role in “Reykjavik-Rotterdam,” of which this movie is a remake), “Contraband” follows the gone-legit Chris Farraday (Wahlberg), who’s forced back in the smuggling game after the weaselly brother of his wife Kate (Kate Beckinsale) gets into trouble with creepy criminal Tim Briggs (Giovanni Ribisi, rocking a risible Cajun accent).

The caper itself is only about two notches more clever than the one in “Tower Heist” (that titular crime felt like it was pieced together on the fly), the action scenes aren’t particularly interesting, and the characters are all flat and uninteresting. And then there’s the predictability of the “surprise” villain; I won’t spoil it here, but if you don’t guess who it is well before the reveal, then I sincerely hope you enjoyed seeing your very first movie.

Wahlberg is seemingly incapable of giving a mediocre performance — they’re either great, in movies like “I Heart Huckabee’s” or “The Departed” or “The Other Guys,” or they’re downright wretched, as in “Max Payne” and “The Happening” and “Four Brothers.” Add “Contraband” to the latter list.

Diego Luna (as a twitchy Panamanian crime lord) and J.K. Simmons (as a humorless cargo ship captain) try valiantly to inject some spark of eccentricity into their cookie-cutter characters, which is more than can be said for Beckinsale. Granted, she’s saddled with a thanklessly bland “wife in peril” role, but if you thought she was phoning in her “Underworld” performances, then you have not yet begun to be bored by her.

The film seems loaded with missed opportunities — Wahlberg and his crew are in a hurry to get the counterfeit money onto the ship in Panama before it takes off, but Kormákur (who also directed the indie “101 Reykjavik”) doesn’t supply the tiniest bit of ticking-clock suspense. Nor does he find anything fun or novel about his New Orleans setting, apart from the usual zydeco-wedding and seedy-bar clichés.

First-time screenwriter Aaron Guzikowski throws in a clever running gag about Jackson Pollack, and takes us from the bridge down to the industrial depths of a cargo ship, but those are the only interesting tidbits “Contraband” has to offer. For the most part, this is a straight-to-DVD movie that earned a theatrical release only by virtue of its A-list cast.

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