Gritty, pumped and stylish Contraband has great action thriller DNA. Over the course of 100 or so minutes, the film ties the viewer’s stomach in knots refusing to release until the very end, as things go about as bad as they can go in the world of international smuggling. Its movie-viewing pleasure is a strange one, a bit like being choked and liking it.
The plot begins with Andy (Caleb Landry Jones) botching a drug smuggling operation for Tim Briggs (Giovanni Ribisi). Andy’s brother-in-law, Chris Farraday (Mark Wahlberg) used to be world-class smuggler but has worked hard to leave that life behind. The threat to Andy’s life forces Chris to return to contraband ways so as to settle Andy’s debt and so he decides to smuggle millions in counterfeit bills from Panama.
?For such a straight-forward genre, action films appear surprisingly difficult to make well. A big part of an action film’s eventual hit or miss is whether there is an action director at the helm. For example, Paul Greengrass’ direction made the second and third Bourne movies markedly more exciting than the first and, despite all his other virtues as a director, Christopher Nolan still doesn’t appear to have found a way of injecting pace in his film’s action scenes.
?In the case of Contraband, Baltasar Kormákur’s direction looks to have genuine action-director pedigree, which is impressive considering it is his first big action feature. The action is explosive and believable (in some ways reminiscent of Soderbergh’s Traffic) and Kormákur ably combines soaring wide shots with grainy hand-held camera shooting, which results in the film being manic but never disorientating.
?The film does well to absorb the viewer in the atmosphere of its various locations. The story begins in New Orleans, where the smooth organisation of the smuggling operation is accompanied by misty shots of the French quarter and by a cool blue-collar blues soundtrack. When the action moves to Panama, there are no Panama hats to be seen, but instead the viewer is landed in a hotspot of deadly opportunity, with images of a gleaming urban coastline and fenced gangland back-alleys.
?Aside from the direction, the film has some great casting. Giovanni Ribisi’s menacing low-level enforcer, David O’Hara’s restrained gangster and Diego Luna’s psychopathic crime lord make for a chilling triad of bad guys. These three are accompanied by a number of other character actors and a testosterone-oozing Mark Walhberg, whose usual understated (or flat) acting style works well for the working class action lead. The script is simple and lacking even occasional charm, so the actors employed do well to make the story engaging.
?Contraband does not attempt to be anything but an action film and that is to its credit. Its creators understand the potent combination of adrenaline and style, and manage to deliver on both these two ingredients.
DIRECTOR: BALTASAR KORMAKUR
WRITER: AARON GUZIKOVSKI
STARS: MARK WAHLBERG, LUKAS HAAS, BEN FOSTER, CALEB LANDRY JONES, KATE BECKINSALE, GIOVANNI RIBISI, JASON MITCHELL, J.K. SIMMONS
RUNTIME: 117 MINS APPROX