Contraband opens with one of those weddings that exists only to introduce you to the movie’s characters: Chris Farraday (Mark Wahlberg), a former smuggler who is now reformed and married to Kate (Kate Beckinsale) but still orders Schlitz beer at an open bar because he’s a real guy and mixed drinks are for sissies; his best friend and former partner in crime Sebastian (Ben Foster), who now works in construction and seems to be a nice, cool dude, except that Foster never plays dudes who are nice and cool; their dim-witted pal Danny (Lukas Haas), who has just gotten married and in practically any other crime picture, you could immediately target him as the guy who will get killed during the heist that inevitably goes bad.
But few things in Contraband play out exactly like you’d expect. Yes, there is an elaborate heist, and it goes so disastrously wrong that it’s worthy of inclusion in the next Mission: Impossible picture. But it is capped off by a terrific punch line that the movie patiently sits on for almost an hour of screen time. Contraband was directed by Iceland’s Baltasar Komárkur, best known in the United States for the cracked comedy 101 Reykjavík, which explains the touches of humor constantly popping up throughout the film. Without them, the movie might have been a generic crime picture with stylishly desaturated colors and lots of handheld camerawork. But the off-kilter tone holds your attention, and it extends to every facet of the movie, such as a sequence depicting the robbery of an armored truck which begins as a brazen rip-off of Michael Mann’s Heat but ends on a much loonier note.
Contraband follows Chris, whose ability to sneak illegal goods past customs officials at the Port of New Orleans is legendary, as he embarks on One Last Job. His wife’s little brother Andy (Caleb Landry Jones) owes $700,000 to a wormy drug dealer (Giovanni Ribisi) who doesn’t believe in installment plans. So Chris and Sebastian hatch a plot to smuggle in a pallet’s worth of counterfeit dollars from Panama City, which they could then sell to pay off Andy’s debt.
Contraband makes good use of freighter ships, dock workers and maritime laws to bring freshness to its admittedly stale plotline: You can see the double-crosses coming like a bus barrelling down a bike path. Although Komárkur means business, the director is definitely channeling the spirit of the Ocean’s Eleven comedies: There’s a frothy, almost whimsical undercurrent quietly bubbling beneath the dead-serious story, and it finally bursts to the forefront in the ridiculously happy finale, which argues without the slightest bit of shame that crime sometimes does pay — really, really well.
The movie judges its characters not by the lawfulness of their actions but by the morals and scruples by which they abide (it’s the rare sort of film that treats reformed criminals with dignity and compassion). J.K. Simmons plays the ship’s captain, who suspects Chris is up to something shady and is constantly dogging him. But there’s something about the captain that makes his officiousness seem a tiny bit hypocritical. Like practically everyone else in Contraband, there’s more to him than meets the eye. There is nothing about the movie that is particularly memorable — Wahlberg seems to have taken the part for the opportunity it provides to perform stunts — and certain supporting roles serve no purpose whatsoever other than as engines to the plot (Beckinsale gets into so much trouble while her husband is away at sea, her character might as well been named Pauline). But Contraband, which is being marketed as an action-thriller, is crafty enough to withhold its first big action set piece for more than an hour of screen time. It’s a testament to the film that the wait isn’t the least bit boring.
Cast: Mark Wahlberg, Kate Beckinsale, Ben Foster, Giovanni Ribisi, Caleb Landry Jones, Lukas Haas, J.K. Simmons, Diego Luna.
Director: Baltasar Komárkur.
Screenwriter: Aaron Guzikowski. Based on the movie Reykjavik-Rotterdam.
Producer: Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Baltasar Komárkur.
A Universal Pictures release. Running time: 109 minutes. Vulgar language, violence, gore, drug use, adult themes. Opens Friday Jan. 17 at area theaters.