It’s not called “The Panamanian Job,” but the south-of-the-border action in “Contraband” might be as close as star/producer Mark Wahlberg will ever get to properly sequelizing “The Italian Job,” his easy-peasy, nice-and-easy summer hit from 2003. (Note the surely intentional shout-out to Mini Coopers.)
“Contraband” is also an unexpectedly shrewd and efficient Murphy’s Law thriller with a livelier narrative than you might expect. It’s as far from a prestigious follow-up to “The Fighter” as Wahlberg can get and still carry off something worth watching. But this finds him in a B-movie wheelhouse he’s admirably never quite left. This is, after all, a guy who got his first big movie break tattooing “NICOLE 4 EVA” into his chest. And here, “Contraband” generates consistently engaging suspense while transplanting Wahlberg’s hardscrabble Beantown aesthetic to the Bayou.
The New Orleans milieu owes more to Michael Mann than Mardi Gras. Given that NOLA’s pop-culture presence is so often limited to mythos or mirth, it’s startling to see it as an urban sprawl of exit-ramp pavement on which skulls and dreams could be crushed. You’d especially be forgiven for mistaking the city for Los Angeles in “Contraband’s” opening sequence — aerial and on-the-water sequences of glittery digital cinematography that turn the Big Easy into a bayou City of Angels. It’s an attempt to smuggle cocaine, busted by U.S. Customs and Border Protection, that sets up this stormy story.
Before agents board the container ship he’s on, young Andy (Caleb Landry Jones) dumps the booger sugar in the salty gulf. He’s not detained, but he still has to tell the guy for whom he smuggled the goods — professional lowlife Tim Briggs (Giovanni Ribisi) — that his drugs went in the drink. Tim responds unfavorably, killing Andy’s buddy who sat in on the job and threatening the same outcome for Andy.
Fearing for his life, Andy calls his sister, Kate (Kate Beckinsale) and brother-in-law, Chris (Wahlberg). Chris is now a father of two and the owner of a small security business, the sort of guy who prefers canned Schlitz and open-mouthed, public make-out sessions with his wife. But he was once so good at sneaking in contraband from foreign lands that the script compares him both to Harry Houdini and either the “Lennon or McCartney of smugglers” — Chris’s right-hand man Sebastian (Ben Foster) being whatever boosting Beatle he isn’t. (Thankfully, the quips improve.)
Chris and Tim come to tough talk and tougher blows, but Chris knows there’s only one way to assure Andy’s safety. That’s to perform a job smuggling counterfeit U.S. bills from Panama City into New Orleans to pay back the millions in profit Tim lost with the drugs.
Assembling most of his old team, along with Andy, Chris concocts a plan that, of course, goes all sorts of wrong — spinning off into a runaway container ship, a furious Panamanian gunfight with guys using duct tape for masks, Tim’s insatiable thirst for violence and even a possible betrayal by one of Chris’s own.
Given the relative B-movie terms on which “Contraband” should be judged, Ribisi’s Tim fuels its only real missteps. Tatted up and greased down like Johnny Knoxville with a broken showerhead and putting a little remoulade on his “full retard” accent from “The Other Sister,” Ribisi gives an unabashedly garish performance better suited for a straight-to-DVD title.
Plus, after a while, Tim exists only to constantly threaten Kate, a role Beckinsale must have viewed as a January tradeoff. You know, waifish hairstyling wife/target one week, leather-clad head-knocker the next (“Underworld: Awakening”).
But even in scenes turned over to the showiest performers (Foster, eventually trapped again as he often is in red-faced fury), director Baltasar Kormákur generally lingers on the right flinches and tics in his actors’ faces. For example, as the curmudgeonly captain of the container ship Chris commandeers for his caper, J.K. Simmons is a pro forma delight, just the right kind of big-boss shit-talker. And at least Foster approaches what happens to Sebastian as a spiral, not as a snap.
An actor himself — who had Wahlberg’s role in the 2008 Icelandic film on which “Contraband” is based — Kormákur seems to prefer the drama and humorous zingers to the film’s minimal action sequences, nevertheless lensed with panache by cinematographer Barry Ackroyd (bringing the same ride-along-in-the-rumbleseat flair he brought to “The Hurt Locker” and “Coriolanus”).
Sure, “Contraband” demands goofball suspensions of disbelief down the stretch. Some of its juiciest scenes seem truncated; a Customs-agent interrogation promises juicy verbal sparring before awkwardly just stopping. And its breezy-backslapping conclusion hardly jives with the dead cops, endangered children and head trauma before it. But it successfully juggles tones of “boat,” “heist” and “action” movie to offer a far more palatable potboiler than January usually pukes up.