‘Contraband’ has many ingredients, but they all taste similar

Tension and grit run wild throughout the latest Mark Wahlberg film, “Contraband.” Directed by  Icelandic filmmaker Baltasar Kormákur,  and fully loaded with familiar faces like Kate Beckinsale, Ben Foster and Giovanni Ribisi. “Contraband” tells the tale of a harsh smuggler workforce in New Orleans, and hits the mark for a somewhat typical crime thriller.Mark Wahlberg’s character Chris Farraday is your standard caricature of an expert criminal gone straight. His wife Kate (Kate Beckinsale) has much to do with this decision, as do their two adolescent sons.  When Kate’s little brother (Caleb Landry Jones) tries his hand at drug smuggling, he succumbs to the old “Han Solo” slip-up when he’s forced to jettison his cargo of cocaine overboard into the ocean.This leads to a pay-up-or-die threat scenario from his employer, seedily played by a tattooed Giovanni Ribisi. Of course, Farraday is put  back in the game as he gathers a crew to smuggle in some “contraband” (high-grade counterfeit cash) from Panama to pay off the debt.  The rest, as might be guessed, turns into a sour set of circumstances that walks the razor’s edge of victory and chaotic defeat.The main strength of this film is the pacing. One problem comes after another, only to be foiled by the tough and resourceful Farraday. But as soon as one issue is solved, another takes the lead as climaxes pile onto each other. This film technique could be unofficially termed “suspense-timing.” It’s an old trick familiar to those who are fans of films like “Ocean’s 11,” when the possibility of disaster is imminent, but averted at the final desperate moments by criminal minds which are too cool for school. It should be noted, however, that “Contraband” is many times more violent than any “Ocean’s” film.

“It all tied together,” said audience member Cody Reynolds after the film. “It was very well scripted, I would say. The writers didn’t make it up as they went – they knew where they were going from the beginning.”

The mixture of suspense-timing, humor and street violence made “Contraband” an interesting and fun exposé of how well Mark Wahlberg can pull off a likeable but stern hard-case. At one point the movie peaks in wild grittiness when Farraday and his colleague are forced to go on an armored car heist by an unstable Panamanian crime lord, played by Diego Luna, of all people (who actually does a pretty good job).

Another standout performance comes from Jonathan Kimble Simmons as Captain of the barge used by Farraday’s crew. Simmons seemed to share the role of comedic relief with Ribisi, even though each character plays an antagonist with the soul of a hyena. Ben Foster also dishes out his typically well-acted performance as Farraday’s best friend.

Despite this, “Contraband” doesn’t break any barriers in the genre. Upon viewing, some may feel the energy and tight grip of the film, but simultaneously be reminded of similar movies.

“It reminded of me of ‘American Gangster’ because of all the drugs,” said spectator Hannah Martinez. Indeed, both films deal with like themes – the clever smuggling of illegal cargo, and the murderous figures which control that environment.

And while the cast, writing and execution of “Contraband” is rather solid, it’s still probably doomed to obscurity in the land where stories about reformed criminals forced into their old expertise float around, waiting to be viewed like a lovely landscape painting that’s still too comparable with the rest to stand out.