Friday, January 13, 2012

CONTRABAND Is Contrabland


One thing that's always frustrating to me when talking movies: how hard it can be to talk about what separates a great action or genre film from a merely-decent or mediocre one. Sometimes, I feel like I'll complain about an action movie and get the response of "well, not every movie has to be intellectual." True, very true. But even within the confines of the action genre, there is good and there is bad. There is badass and there is weaksauce. There is awesomeness and there is epic fail. Seeing a movie like Contraband that's, overall, okay but just pretty unremarkable and bland, it's hard for me to just give it a pass. I mean, as I recently blogged about, I just attended a Badass Movie Night where I took in action classics like Rolling Thunder and Hard Boiled - movies that reeked of awesome and that positively kicked my ass.

I don't ask that an action movie be overly cerebral - I just want awesomeness. And on that front, CONTRABAND only marginally delivers. It's got a bland plot, boring characters, and few if any moments that really wowed me. Is it terrible? No, it's okay - and it's got an admittedly great cast. But the cast deserves better material. You can sense the likes of Ben Foster and Kate Beckinsale and Giovanni Ribisi straining to make something out of their parts. They do their best - and they make the movie watchable. But good god - if you set out to make a movie like this, set out to make it kick all kinds of ass. Come up with a sweet main character, a memorable villain, jaw-dropping twists. Go for broke. Contraband feels totally "meh" for most of its runtime.

Contraband stars Mark "Say hello to your mother for me" Wahlberg as Chris Farraday, an ex-smuggler who's gone straight, and now makes a living running a home security company. He's settled into a peaceful, domesticated life with his wife (Kate Beckinsale) and kids. But things go bad when Farraday's screw-up brother-in-law botches a smuggling job for Briggs (Ribisi), a ruthless, unhinged crime boss. The mistake could endanger the lives of Farraday and his family, so the onetime master-smuggler must go on one last run - a trip to Panama to bring back counterfeit money - to pay back Briggs and keep his family safe.

It's a classic story of the reformed criminal who's got to do "one last job." But there's nothing really classic about it as told here. The biggest problem is probably that Wahlberg's character feels so underdeveloped. We never find out what exactly turned him to the straight-and-narrow. And we never really understand why he was once the best in the biz at smuggling, except that people tell us so. Wahlberg is okay, but just bland in this. And another issue is that we never really are made to understand the world of smuggling. I never got why Wahlberg had to travel all the way to Panama to secure the counterfeit money. And I thought there was almost a comical obviousness to the fact that, hey, Farraday owes this crime boss money, so hey - let's do this massively complicated smuggling run to get it! It just struck me as funny that he never even talked about just robbing a bank or something. At the least, I wish the movie had explained why this was the best method to get the payload, Farraday's background notwithstanding. Also - I never quite got the dynamics of him and his crew, or how they worked with the captain of their ship. Speaking of which, JK Simmons plays said Captain, and it's a frustrating character - the dude goes on some random trip to Panama with a bunch of known criminals onboard, and yet he's constantly weary that they might be up to something fishy. Ya' think?

As mentioned though, the cast helps to give the movie what little spark it has. One standout is Giovanni Ribisi. He plays Briggs like a character from a much cooler, much crazier B-movie - he reminded me a bit of T-Bag from one of my favorite TV-shows, Prison Break. He has those snake-like mannerisms that make him a bad-guy you love to hate. But Ribisi is sort of in the background for a lot of the movie. When he does appear, business definitely picks up though. Same can be said for Ben Foster as Sebastion, Farraday's longtime friend and partner. The movie's one good twist revolves around Sebastion, and it's not that it's that clever or that it even makes sense, but more so that it gives Foster a chance to do what he does best: be a mean, creepy sonofabitch. When Foster is given the chance to really shine, that's when Contraband is at its best. Without spoiling anything, I'll just say that the movie was really losing me for a while, but I finally got re-invested when Foster emerges as a key player in the drama. I also liked Kate Beckinsale as Farraday's wife. My only issue is that the character feels a bit too much like a victim. When you've got a kickass actress like KB in a role, it's hard to watch her get pushed around and made into a damsel-in-distress. One last shout-out goes to William Lucking who makes a brief cameo as Farraday's incarcerated father, who himself was a smuggler. Lucking manages to be the most badass person in the movie, by far, despite only a few minutes of screentime. It made me wonder how much more cool this flick could have been if it was a story of father-son joint ass-kicking. Ah well.

But again, there just isn't a cool enough story or well-defined enough characters for these talented actors to sink their collective teeth into. The script seems intent on trying to make its characters cool through lots of tough-guy dude-bro dialogue, but it rarely if ever pops. Setting never plays any real role in the movie - the film is set mainly in New Orleans, but you'd barely know it. And the segments in Panama are bland. Director Baltasar Kormakur seems to be going for some sort of slick Michael Mann-style mood here, but I began rolling my eyes when I realized that *every* scene is punctuated by a kewl overhead, nighttime shot of either a.) a ship barreling through the ocean, or b.) a helicopter flying over said ship. We get it, big vehicles at night are cool - we don't need to see that same shot every minute.

Basically, the only signs of life in Contraband come from a stacked cast that is clearly doing their best to make this movie work. Nothing else about the movie gives you reason to care though. It's generic and bland through-and-through.

My Grade: C

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