What is it with Mark Wahlberg? The man has a fair amount of talent, witness ‘The Departed’ or ‘The Fighter’; and he has an eye for entertainment with the highly successful (and yes, very entertaining) ‘Entourage’, and yet somehow he finds himself regressing in middle of road, and frankly unremarkable fare like Contraband. It’s as if he constantly needs to revert to some image of two-dimensional tough guy upbringing. He even has a grasp on self-mockery, put to great effect in the goofball ‘The Other Guys’. Unless of course he was the only one who wasn’t in on the joke. Still, with Contraband’s $65 million US gross out of a $25 million budget, maybe he’s the one who’s laughing.
In his latest action outing Wahlberg is Chris Farraday, a working man, trying to make an honest living through his home security company. However it soon becomes apparent that in the working class streets of Boston, where you can almost smell the graft and the watered down beer, Farraday has a black-slapping rep as former smuggler extraordinaire. Naturally, with his beautiful wife Kate (Kate Beckinsale) and a young family to take care of his criminal days are far behind him, or as he puts it so eloquently himself, ‘I’m not doing another fucking run, no way.’ And in classic pantomime response you can’t help yourself thinking, ‘oh yes you are’.
That impetus comes from Farraday’s somewhat less intelligent brother-in-law Andy (Caleb Landry Jones), who behind his family’s back has been getting entwined with Boston’s criminal underworld. In an aborted attempt to do some smuggling of his own, he finds himself at the sharp end of some vengeful drug dealers, led by the staggeringly grimy and equally intellectually challenged crime boss Tim Briggs (Giovanni Ribisi). Briggs, in a moment of magnanimity, decides that if Andy doesn’t repay what he’s lost then his whole family is going to pay in kind.
Finding himself stuck between a rock and a hard case Farraday has no choice but to step in and try and make good, by going back to being bad, but being an old fashioned smuggler there’s one thing he won’t deal with – drugs. So he goes back to a well-tested scam, running forged US bank notes from Panama. What could possibly go wrong…
As it happens, quite a lot. After wrangling some old, and new, comrades, including the under-rated Ben Foster as best friend Sebastian Abney, Farraday is badly let down by his trusted Panamanian contact and has to take the decision to deal with a less straightforward contact in the guise of psychotic, loose cannon crimelord Gonzalo (a brilliant, off-the-wall Diego Luna). Finding payment not forthcoming Gonzalo co-opts Farrady into another criminal enterprise. An armoured car heist. And here, for a moment at least, we get some real visceral excitement as the smash and grab is a great piece of palm sweating action with practically everything spiraling out of control when the local constabulary crash the party. There’s so much gleeful, heavy-duty machine gunning you come to the swift conclusion that shooting gangsters, trucks, anything that moves, is a higher priority than the targeted prize.
This kind of off-kilter, vaguely illogical approach to the end-game pretty much sums up the entire enterprise. There are the usual double-crosses and obstacles in Farraday’s way but they’re plotted and written with such leaden disregard it almost seems as if they were added as an afterthought. Some characters’ behaviour actually borders on the moronic. In one sequence, literally hours after Wahlberg has set up the whole scheme and is sailing on his way to Panama, Ribisi’s Briggs stages a home invasion to threaten Farraday’s family, just to make sure he, well, goes to Panama.
There is an attempt to inject some criminal smarts as the gang plan everything on the way to Central America, figure out the smuggling bolt holes and keep an eye out for J. K. Simmons‘ hard-ass ship’s Captain, but the technicalities on the ocean-deep are a welcome relief because the human element is a little shallow. There’s also the usual surfeit of hand-held ‘realism’ in what is essentially a fantastical action film, and there’s a running sub-plot with a supposed kicker at the end, but it’s so signposted and laboured that it becomes an a-ha moment that has all the surprise of discovering your cheese sandwich, contains cheese.
Contraband is not an entire loss, but we’ve seen it all before. That doesn’t have to be the kiss of death but it is frustrating when you’ve got what, on paper, seems to be a pool of considerable talent, including Scandinavian director Baltasar Kormakur (101 Rejkavik). Part produced by Working Title, they will in all likelihood gain some decent returns on their investment (before todays UK cinema release the film had already earned $82 million worldwide from a $25 million budget), but if they’re going to plough money into mediocre fare like this you do hope they’ll spend some of their ill-gotten gains on something with a bit more bite.
Contraband is released in UK Cinemas from today.