Contraband: Formulaic Actioner about High-Sea Smuggling, Starring Mark Wahlberg

Mark Wahlberg has acted and/or produced good work (“The Fighter” last year, which he produced and starred in, or TV’s “Entourage,” which still runs high), but his latest vehicle, Contraband, a formulaic generic item about high-seas smuggling, is not one of them.

This semi-suspenseful thriller is actually a remake of an Icelandic picture, ”Reykjavik-Rotterdam,” scripted by Arnaldur Indridason and Oskar Jonasson, which was faster and better. 

Wahlberg stars as the legendary (is there any other kind?) smuggler Chris Farraday, a middle-aged man who had abandoned his life of crime to settle down into a life of comfy middle-class domesticity with his wife and their two young sons.

When first met, Chris is at a wedding, which is interrupted by a peculiar proposition.  It turns out that Chris’ brother-in-law, Andy, has botched a drug deal for his ruthlessly maniac boss, Tim Briggs (Giovanni Ribisi, all tattooed), Hollywood’s expert of playing disturbed weirdoes and crazy psychotic men).

Under various pressures, some self-imposed, Chris is forced back into action, namely, running contraband to settle Andy’s debt.  (Is there a greater cliché than having a cool, retired professional, who is pulled into one last piece of action).

Following conventions of the familiar heist picture, Chris assembles together a colorful crew, which includes his best friend, Sebastian Abney (Ben Foster), and their boyhood’s friend, Danny Raymer, and they all go to Panama for their mission, bring back millions in counterfeit bills.

Predictably, there are obstacles along the way, here in the persona of the ever-suspicious ship’s captain (TV star J.K. Simmons), who—wouldn’t you know it—had a long, troubled history with Chris’s father.

Like most genre films, the heist in “Contraband” threatens to goes uproariously (but not hilariously) awry.   Despite a seemingly rational planning, almost every element of the puzzle is about to fall apart.

The clock is ticking fast: With only hours to reach his goal, Chris’s skills are put to test in trying to navigate efficiently a treacherous criminal network of brutal Panamanian drug runners, such as Gonzalo (Diego Luna), and an assortment of hit men, not to mention the chasing police.  Meanwhile, Chris’s wife Kate (Kate Beckinsale) and his sons face life-risking menaces.

Filmmaker Baltasar Kormakur has done much better with his Nordic features (“Jar City,” and especially “101 Reykjavík”), but here, he seems constrained by the limitations of the writing, credited to Aaron Guzikowski.  Trying to elevate the over familiar saga with stylistic flourishes (dynamic,jittery  hand-held camera), Kormakur nonetheless struggles with giving his tale the right (fast) pacing.  Fora suspenser, “Contraband” has more than standard share of uneventful sequences, which even flashy pyrotechnics can’t conceal.

The gifted director of photography Barry Ackroyd (who shot the Oscar-winner “The Hurt Locker”) tries the best he can to give this actioner a sharp, crispy look, and to a large extent he succeeds.

In general, the production values are more polished and engaging than the standard-issue tale and its stereotypical characters.  It’s a very bad sign when as a viewer you don’t care much about the fate of the protagonist or his under-siege family.

The acting of the gifted cast is rather bland, or undistinguished, with the members reciting his lines in an affectless manner, sort of walking through their parts.

Ultimately, “Contraband” demonstrates the tension between a European artsy feature and a Hollywood trashy and exploitational programmer.