Friday, January 13, 2012

Contraband: Slick, smarmy and suspenseful

Contraband (2012) • View trailer
3.5 stars. Rating: R, for violence, pervasive profanity and brief drug use
By Derrick Bang

Goodness, this is a sordid little piece.

Scandinavian crime thrillers have been on the rise of late, thanks in great part to the Stateside interest in Stieg Larsson’s Girl with the Dragon Tattoo trilogy and Henning Mankell’s Kurt Wallander series, the latter recently brought to these shores via actor Kenneth Branagh’s sterling TV adaptations.
Chris (Mark Wahlberg, left) thoroughly hates the idea of "rescuing" his stupid
brother-in-law by embarking on a fresh smuggling heist, but circumstances
have left him no other options. Fortunately, Chris has the underworld savvy
of best friend Sebastian (Ben Foster) to help grease the wheels.

Longtime readers of European thrillers are wondering what the heck took the rest of us so long, of course, since they’ve known about such writers since the arrival of Swedish novelists Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, whose “Martin Beck” series generated some heat here in the 1960s and ’70s. The fourth book, The Laughing Policeman, was made into an American film vehicle for Walter Matthau in 1973; the adaptation was loose, but certainly engaging.

Icelandic novelists belong to this club as well, with Arnaldur Indriðason and Yrsa Sigurðardóttir leading the charge. All of which serves to introduce Contraband, an American adaptation of 2008’s Reykjavik-Rotterdam, which was Iceland’s official submission for the Academy Awards’ foreign language category in 2010.

This American remake’s pedigree is even more interesting. The Icelandic original, co-written by Indriðason and Óskar Jónasson (the latter also directed), starred Baltasar Kormákur as a former smuggler forced by circumstance to re-embrace his larcenous past; Mark Wahlberg has taken this role in the new version, which is directed by Kormákur.

I can’t think of any other cases where the star of a foreign film — rather than the director or writer — went on to direct an American remake.

Point being, Kormákur certainly understands the atmosphere required by this grim and thoroughly tawdry story. So does first-time scripter Aaron Guzikowski, a former New York ad agency employee who popped up on Hollywood’s radar a few years ago, thanks to a spec script that drew Wahlberg’s attention. And since Wahlberg also is one of the many producers attached to Contraband, we can deduce that he liked Guzikowski’s writing chops.

So do I. Contraband certainly won’t win any awards, but it delivers plenty of tension and a veritable rogue’s gallery of dodgy characters. These are all bad folks, in one form or another; the trick is to make at least one of them a “hero” who deserves our trust and sympathy. In that, Kormákur and Guzikowski succeed quite well, and Wahlberg inhabits that fellow quite credibly.

He stars as Chris Farrady, a former smuggler who turned his back on “the life” in order to raise two young sons with beloved wife Kate (Kate Beckinsale). Chris has been able to walk away from the dangerous companions of his past in great part because of the juice still wielded by his father, Bud (William Lucking), who has lost none of his Irish mob ties even while in prison.

“The proudest day of my life,” Bud tells his son, at one point, “was when you went straight.” True that, and Chris seems to be doing reasonably well with a home-security business in his home city of New Orleans. Indeed, who’d better know what to anticipate?

Alas, Chris’ comfortable life goes south when Kate’s impressively stupid younger brother, Andy (Caleb Landry Jones), foolishly accepts an assignment to smuggle drugs into the Port of New Orleans while serving a stint on a huge container ship. Customs officials somehow get wind up this operation, and raid the ship — the fast-paced sequence with which Kormákur opens his film — but Andy manages to pitch the contraband overboard before getting caught with it.

Unfortunately, this act of self-preservation doesn’t cut any ice with his New Orleans contact, a psychopathic, mid-level mob boss — Tim Briggs, played with chilling ferocity by Giovanni Ribisi — who couldn’t care less about excuses. Briggs is out a high six-figure payday, and he wants his money. And if Andy can’t cough it up, he’ll be executed and the debt will transfer to his next of kin: Kate and, by extension, Chris.

Chris cannot believe — simply cannot believe — the ghastly Hobson’s choice that has been dumped into his lap. Much as he’d love to kill Andy himself — slowly and painfully would be too good for the stupid mutt, in my opinion — that wouldn’t solve the problem.

And, so, with echoes of Al Pacino in his head (“Just when I thought I was out ... they pull me back in!”), Chris reluctantly arranges one more big score. Assisted by longtime friend Sebastian (Ben Foster), who’s still connected with the proper circles, Chris gets himself added to the crew of a container ship heading to Panama. But Chris has no intention of smuggling drugs, which he makes clear to all concerned; his target of choice is counterfeit American “super bills” that are all but indistinguishable from the real thing.

Trouble is, given the disparity between face value and street value, that’s gonna be a massive stack of funny money, and therefore much harder to obtain, move, conceal and smuggle past the New Orleans Customs officials. But that’s Chris’ problem, which he readily embraces; he isn’t known as a magician for nothing.

Naturally, things don’t go anywhere near as planned. In terms of folks in his face, additional complications revolve around the smarmy ship’s captain (J.K. Simmons), who hates Chris from prior experience; Louisiana crime kingpin Jim Church (David O’Hara), who’d love to have Chris on the permanent payroll again; and the unstable, opportunistic Gonzalo (Diego Luna), head of the Panamanian cartel that has contracted to provide Chris with the counterfeit money.

Worse yet, Briggs isn’t willing to wait peacefully; the moment Chris leaves for Panama, this scumball begins to terrorize Kate and the boys. And with Ribisi calling these nasty shots, there’s no doubt in our minds that something bad will go down. Even Sebastian, no slouch in terms of lethal menace — and entrusted to protect Chris’ family, in his absence — may not be able to prevent the unthinkable.

The situation seems wholly out of Chris’ control, and Kormákur and Guzikowski capitalize on this; part of the film’s suspense derives from trying to anticipate how the hell Chris will surmount each new challenge. The rest of the suspense comes from our fear that Briggs will rape or somehow maim Kate, who isn’t about to back down, particularly when it comes to sheltering her sons.

We expect the latter, given the casting involved; Beckinsale has based her recent career on characters who don’t take crap from anybody, and Kate is appropriately — if foolishly — feisty here.

Wahlberg makes a determined and likable anti-hero: definitely a guy to cheer. He’s doing the wrong thing for all the right reasons, and he brings considerable presence and conviction to a role that could have been a throwaway. Indeed, the strong casting throughout elevates Kormákur’s film above its many B-film brethren.

Ribisi, as mentioned, is deliciously evil throughout: not one benevolent corpuscle in this stone killer’s body. Foster, so well remembered for his own psychopathic turn in the recent remake of 3:10 to Yuma, does an equally solid job with the story’s most complex character: a guy who clearly has his own feelings for Kate.

Luna, in contrast, slides toward unintentional parody as the unbalanced Gonzalo; it’s difficult to imagine the other Panamanian crimelords tolerating this unhinged comic book thug for more than a day or two. This Panamanian sidebar also is where Kormákur allows his film to get sloppy, with respect to the ticking clock; Chris and his buddies — notably childhood friend Danny, played with nervous tension by Lukas Haas — are on a very tight schedule during what should be a “brief” portside visit, and yet hours and hours of, ah, distractions somehow get condensed into much less time. Not likely.

Still, it’s a taut sequence, despite mounting improbabilities, and it introduces a droll — and quite clever — subplot having to do with an item that Gonzalo “encourages” Chris to help steal from an armored truck.

Ironically, given this film’s high level of violence, menace and profanity — certainly enough F-bombs to take us all the way to summer — I walked out disappointed by the absence of appropriate payback, as things wrapped up. Given the awful things done to Chris and his family as this story progresses, I wanted certain individuals to be defenestrated, drawn and quartered, or something similarly appropriate. Kormákur opts for a more realistic resolution; he therefore gets credit for credibility, at the expense of satisfying viewer bloodlust. Ah, well.

Production values are top rate, Barry Ackroyd’s cinematography is appropriately gritty, and Clinton Shorter delivers a suitably tension-laced score. Contraband emerges as a nifty thriller, although definitely not one for the faint of heart.

No comments:

Post a Comment