Mark Wahlberg, left, and Ben Foster are shown in a scene from "Contraband." (Patti Perret / Universal…)
"Contraband," starring the rock-steady Mark Wahlberg, is about a high-risk, high-seas heist involving a supertanker that is so super complicated (implausible?) that in the wrong hands it would be laughable. Instead, this very gritty bit of greased action does a decent job of shaking the sluggish out of January.
Based on the 2008 Icelandic thriller, "Reykjavik-Rotterdam," the filmmakers have turned up the heat — both literally and figuratively — shifting it from icy Nordic seas and alcohol trafficking, to set things in New Orleans with a Panama port of call and a few million counterfeit dollars on the horizon. Baltasar Kormakur, who starred in the Nordic version, came onboard to direct the U.S. film, which he has pulled off at least as efficiently as the heist at the heart of "Contraband."
Everyone in "Contraband," it seems, has dirty hands and smuggling on the mind, even Wahlberg's Chris Farraday, a legendary contraband man who's gone straight to keep wife Kate (Kate Beckinsale) and the kids safe from the criminal element. Chris soon finds himself back in hot water when Kate's younger brother Andy (Caleb Landry Jones) gets involved in a drug-running scheme that goes bad (are there any other kind?), with Chris called on to pick up the bill to save him. Not having millions in the bank account, Chris falls back on what he knows best — a smuggling scheme that has trouble written all over it.
To keep things dark and the threat ever present, the filmmakers have packed this boat with a whole lot of crazy starting with Giovanni Ribisi as Tim Briggs, a nasty piece of work as the local drug boss. Meanwhile, Sebastian Abney (Ben Foster) runs a cement business and despite all his 12-step confessing and best-friend sincerity, you can guess how that will play out.
The plot follows the basics of any solid run-and-gun theft story: Chris has to get from Point A to Point B and back again with the goods and without getting caught. Complicating things, because the smuggling game is nothing if not fraught with complications, Chris is trying to take the high road — no drugs moved, just money — and no one waiting for the payoff has any patience, especially Tim. At risk is everyone that Chris cares about — wife, boys, young Andy and his own very tough skin.
Wahlberg has a way of making lethal look neighborly and necessary, which he does here. He's also an actor that has a natural guy's guy chemistry with, well, guys, and a back-burner sexuality with women that can be turned up fast. Those qualities go a long way to keep "Contraband" afloat. Beckinsale, despite her elegant lines, does a good job as a tough chick in a tight spot.
The director gives plenty of room to Foster ("3:10 to Yuma"), who continues to refine his vulnerable-crazy combo, while Ribisi ratchets up his just-plain-insane side in a way that makes you wish someone would let him try ordinary just once. It's a carefully packaged ensemble of bruisers, including J.K. Simmons ("Juno") as the blustering ship captain intent on undermining whatever Chris is up to, even though he has no idea what that is.
Kormakur, who does more directing than acting these days, has an aggressive style — the action is hard-charging and the violence gruesome. It's all the loose ends in the plot that tangle things up, landing "Contraband" just shy of smart enough. Screenwriter Aaron Guzikowski, in his feature debut, piles on a few too many new twists to the original that Arnaldur Indridason and Oskar Jonasson penned for "Reykjavik." (The three share "Contraband" credit.)
It helps that composer Clinton Shorter ("District 9") keeps the beat pulsing while cinematographer Barry Ackroyd ("The Hurt Locker") has the cameras flying as the chasing and the dodging unfolds. The one hour that Chris has in Panama to go pick up the money, in a distant barrio, has its moments, but what makes the action sequences so mesmerizing is the sheer size of the boats and all those containers stacked like tinker toys. That is the perfect staging ground for mayhem, with such good, clean lines for the lens to frame.
Add to that the fact that U.S. Customs is tricked out like some elite hit squad — with slick Cigarette-styled powerboats, helicopters, cool camo duds and drug dogs that have junkyard blood in their veins in that more bite-than-bark way — and "Contraband" is an action-junkies playground. In January, sometimes that's enough.