January used to be the dumping ground for some truly awful movies. This trend has shifted in the last few years, and now most of the movies released in theaters in January are just bland. Take Contraband, a by-the-numbers thriller in which Mark Wahlberg must execute a dangerous smuggling operation to settle a debt with a gangster. Director Baltasar Kormákur remakes the Icelandic thriller Reykjavík-Rotterdam, which he starred in and produced, into a middling but not incompetent actioner that wastes the talents of Ben Foster, Giovanni Ribisi and Kate Beckinsale. Contraband is never particularly bad; it really fails to make much of an impression at all.
Chris Farraday (Wahlberg) went legit after years of smuggling and lives with his wife, Kate (Beckinsale), and boys in New Orleans. Kate's brother, Andy (Caleb Landry Jones), gets busted doing the family trade and must dump the contraband to avoid jail. This leaves him with a sizable debt to gangster Tim Briggs (Ribisi), who threatens to kill Andy if he doesn't pay. Chris gets involved, putting his family in danger, and decides to smuggle $10 million in fake currency from Panama aboard a cargo ship with a grouchy captain (J.K. Simmons). Things don't go well in Panama after Chris meets up with drug lord and old acquaintance Gonzalo (Diego Luna) to get the bills, and Chris sees his intended quick, clean operation begin to unravel.
Since Kormákur has made this movie twice now, it's no surprise that Contraband is at least completely filmed and cast. Wahlberg provides his typical tough-guy swagger, but his performance is somewhat subdued given his character's law-abiding agenda. Foster plays Chris's best friend, Sebastian Abney, who is charged with taking care of Kate while Chris is on the job. This babysitting job goes in a not unexpected but not especially interesting direction, and Chris gets frantic phone calls from Kate when Briggs and his goons come calling. Ribisi adopts a strange inflection in an attempt to seem menacing, but the silly accent only detracts from his performance. Contraband gives little back-story on any of the characters, which is fine since most of the movie is spent tailing Chris as he tries to avoid raising the suspicions of the boat's crew. Kormákur moves the action from New Orleans to the cargo ship to Panama and back with ease, and his on-location work gives the film some much-needed flair.
Despite the sprinkling of diverse talent, Contraband is only occasionally interesting. The stakes never seem that high as Chris and his buddies formulate a way to stall the ship in port so they can retrieve the counterfeit bills. Despite the ridiculous way they accomplish this, no one ever gets caught. Captain Camp recognizes Chris on the first day out and knows his smuggler past, but allows him to stay onboard and doesn't keep especially close tabs on his movements. What goes down in Panama is movie-of-the-week bland, and the resulting shoot-out between Chris and Gonzalo's thugs leaves the good guys suspiciously uninjured.
Contraband will probably play well with a lot of people. The acting is decent, the action frequent, and Chris's moves put his family and friends in constant peril. The suspense and excitement are there, abet in very limited quantities. Contraband might have been something special with a different director. On this second outing, Kormákur makes a picture that is perfectly acceptable for the big screen, but which does nothing to challenge the viewer. Contraband is very much a rental.
Contraband is a dark, gritty film, and Kormákur's intended look is replicated in the 2.35:1/1080p/AVC-encoded transfer. Detail is very good; from facial pores to background lights and buildings, this is a deep, textured image. Shadows frequently overwhelm the actors, but this is a reflection of the director's shooting style and not related to black crush. Even when cloaked in heavy shadow, the image does not lose its detail or clarity. Color saturation and skin tones are accurate, though the whole film has a grey-blue tone. A nice layer of grain is present, and I only noticed a very small amount of aliasing.
The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack packs a punch. Throughout the film the mix consistently impresses with its deep bass response and surround effects. These effects are loud and sometimes drown out the actors, but this is another of Kormákur's stylistic choices. Dialogue is usually crisp and audible, and effects pan the rear and surround speakers. Range and clarity are excellent, as is the reproduction of directional dialogue and effects. French and Spanish 5.1 DTS tracks and a DVS track are also included, as are English SDH, French and Spanish subtitles.
PACKAGING AND EXTRAS:
Contraband is a two-disc "combo pack" set that includes the Blu-ray, a DVD copy of the film and an insert with codes to download both iTunes-compatible and UltraViolet digital copies of Contraband. The discs are housed in a standard Blu-ray case, which is wrapped in a slipcover. The extras are as follows:
Mark Wahlberg must return to a life of smuggling to settle his brother-in-law's debt with a gangster in Contraband. Those looking for an undemanding actioner with decent work from Wahlberg, Kate Beckinsale, Giovanni Ribisi and Ben Foster may enjoy Contraband, but the film never tries to be anything above average. The Blu-ray is solid, but Contraband will be in heavy rotation on cable within the next two years. Rent It.