Mark Wahlberg certainly doesn't have to make movies like Contraband, but I'm kind of glad he does. A by-the-numbers action vehicle released in the cinematic wasteland of January ends up being all the more robust and enjoyable when Marky Mark is behind the wheel.
Contraband, which is based on the 2008 Icelandic thriller, Reykjavik-Rotterdam (awesome title), certainly doesn't cover any new ground. Chris Farraday (Wahlberg) is a legendary counterfeit smuggler based in New Orleans who's put aside a life of crime for the sake of his hot wife (Kate Beckinsale) and cute kids. Chris ends up back in the game when Kate's idiot younger brother Andy (Caleb Landry Jones) screws up big time during a drug-running mission, with Chris called upon by the local cuckoo bird drug lord, Tim Briggs (Giovanni Ribisi), to foot the bill. Chris enlists the help of his shady pal, Sebastian (Ben Foster, still so intense you keep waiting for every vein in his face to just explode at any second), to help him pull off a near-impossible heist involving a supertanker and several million dollars in counterfeit bills. Call it The Big Easy Job, with "Easy" packing all sorts of irony.
If this all sounds familiar, it's because it is, complete with screenwriter Aaron Guzikowski, making his feature debut, putting in all sorts of twists and double-crosses that don't make the story more interesting as much as they create even more implausible plot holes. But Baltasar Kormakur, the star of the original Icelandic film who came aboard to direct this American version, knows how to keep this machine moving with an aggressive style (some of the violence here is as brutal and sudden as it was in Drive) and a particular knack for handling the surprisingly large-scale action scenes (by the end of the film, it seems that all of Louisiana is involved with the big shootout on the docks).
But Kormakur's real ace card is Wahlberg. I've always been a fan, and often a defender when I believe some people mistake his particular form of sincerity and vulnerability for awkwardness or "not being able to act" (really, I could champion his performances in both M. Night Shyamalan's The Happening and Peter Jackson's The Lovely Bones 'til the dawn). Despite the fact that he's a movie star, Wahlberg always manages to bring a kind of working-class earnestness to his characters, especially when they're Tough But Sensitive Guys with a Dark Past like Chris Farraday. When Wahlberg makes that stoic scowl he's so good at, the stakes are suddenly higher. When he gets exasperated, we get stressed out. He's like the super-popular cool dude in high school who was always nice to you, even if he wasn't quite your best friend. This kind of likability and semi-familiarity helps keep Contraband on track more than anything else.
The rest of the cast does fine, with Kate Beckinsale given a few (probably obligatory) tough-chick moments and Giovanni Ribisi amping up the crazy with his nasally voice and tic-ridden physicality. Ben Foster gets to be a little bit calmer than usual, but he's still a ticking time bomb that eventually explodes (and that's not a spoiler -- you'll see it coming from the second you lay eyes on him). Imagine his J. Jonah Jameson from Sam Raimi's Spider-Man movies as a ship captain and you'll get an idea of J.K. Simmons' character, who's one of the main obstacles in Wahlberg's way. And Caleb Landry Jones, as the dumb brother-in-law who started all this mess, seems destined for the kind of crazy roles usually played by Ribisi and Foster.
Contraband isn't a great movie, nor is it a very original one. But it's almost Citizen Kane compared to the usual dreck that gets released in the first month of the year. With this, The Devil Inside last week, and both The Grey and Haywire coming up, maybe Hollywood will soon have to find a new dumping ground.