There’s a certain stigma about movies that come out at this time of year. Out of contention for awards season, these January releases are usually forgotten among the hoopla surrounding the Golden Globes and Academy Awards. “Contraband” epitomizes this kind of movie. It’s exciting enough to hold a viewer’s attention but offers nothing resembling originality or wit, and is forgotten as soon as one leaves the theater.
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Mark Wahlberg (“The Fighter”) stars as Chris Farraday. Once a legend in the smuggling community, he’s now a family man with two kids, a beautiful wife (Kate Beckinsale, “Everybody’s Fine”) and a safe distance from the criminal underworld he once thrived in. That distance is evaporated when his brother-in-law Andy (Caleb Landry Jones, “X-Men: First Class”) gets in bad with a ruthless drug dealer (Giovanni Ribisi, “Avatar”), and Chris has to pull one last smuggling job to save Andy and his own family.
All this may sound familiar. That’s because there’s nothing in “Contraband” that hasn’t been seen before. The movie misses its best opportunity for originality in not delving into the specifics of smuggling. There’s the suggestion of a dark, intriguing world of contraband trafficking, but the film only hints at this world, rather than exploring its nuances. The result is that the viewer neither understands nor feels particularly invested in how or to what end the smuggling is done.
Icelandic director Baltasar Kormákur (who starred in the Icelandic movie “Reykjavik-Rotterdam,” on which “Contraband” is based) has a sure directorial hand, but his vision never develops beyond the sort of hand-held style that has become the norm for action movies since 2002’s “The Bourne Identity.” And while some of the action scenes are quite exciting, they never quite rise above the everyday movie shootout or car chase.
The film’s greatest strength is in the way it builds tension. If nothing else, “Contraband” keeps the audience members on the edge of their seats. There are many effective, heart-pounding scenes — enough that the movie, at almost two hours, still feels quick. But the narrative, as the film traverses from New Orleans to Panama City (and the stakes get higher), becomes so convoluted and undergoes so many twists and turns that the climax feels unsatisfying.
It’s also hard to care about characters who are sketched so broadly. The only thing we really know about Chris, the only thing that keeps us invested in his character, is that he has a family. However, it’s really only the outline of a family: The kids simply remain cute, faceless targets of sympathy, and Beckinsale, as the wife, is the concerned, beautiful wife type. The villains are so extreme as to be caricatures — as drug dealer Tim Briggs, Ribisi is just a snarling, tattooed criminal, and completely one-dimensional. When someone is so totally evil, it’s hard to believe or connect at all with what he’s doing.
In the end, “Contraband” isn’t a bad film, but that’s about the best that can be said about it. It’s just entirely mediocre — not good enough to rave about and not bad enough to hate. The film just trots along at a familiar pace through familiar events, never diverging enough from the expected path to be memorable. And it will be forgotten like so many other January action movies of years past.