Mark Wahlberg is probably the most soft-spoken of our major movie stars. True, he can be big (witness The Departed), but he’s rarely convincing when he’s loud (witness Planet of the Apes). Baltasar Kormakur, the Icelandic director who first made his name with moody dramas in his homeland before making the leap Stateside, seems to understand this better than most other filmmakers. In Contraband, Wahlberg often speaks in a bare whisper — appropriate, perhaps, for the role of a smuggler whose job is mainly to hide things — and he commands the screen in a way he usually doesn’t. Kormakur wisely brings down the actors around him, too. The result is that rare Hollywood genre film that earns its intensity rather than forcing it upon you.
Contraband is an admirably dingy, grimy little movie that draws you into its dead-end world of outlaw losers. Wahlberg plays Chris Farraday, a family man and former smuggler trying to stay legit, while his young, dim brother-in-law Andy (Caleb Landry Jones) still does runs for unhinged dealer Briggs (a rather snarly Giovanni Ribisi). Something goes wrong, Andy winds up in debt, and Farraday steps in, bringing together some of his old team for one last run, from their hometown of New Orleans down to Panama on a cargo ship and back again. Needless to say, things go downhill from there, especially when Briggs begins to threaten Farraday’s wife (Kate Beckinsale) and their two kids.
That setup is a fairly standard one, but God is in the details here: Contraband is a remake of a 2008 Icelandic thriller called Reykjavik-Rotterdam (which Kormakur himself did not direct, but oddly enough starred in), and it’s managed to keep that film’s unique mood of mundane desperation. Even the villains are pathetic: When Briggs and his crew break into Farraday’s home to threaten his family, one of the henchmen accidentally fires a gun right next to one of the kids. Briggs, who has a kid of his own, calls off his thugs and they all slink off into the night, complaining. It could be a scene out of a comedy, and it’s not the kind of thing you’d see in, say, a Tony Scott movie. But it doesn’t deflate the intensity of what’s happening, either; Kormakur knows that in many ways a crazy screw-up is a lot more dangerous than a cartoon villain.
The director has impressively managed to carry over his Scandinavian sensibility into this film. One does wish for more, though: The snowballing catastrophes that confront Farraday and his crew as they attempt to make their big score flirt with absurdism. All the breakneck escapes and near-misses eventually take on the quality of an existential joke, and one wonders if there was more comic potential to be mined here. But let’s face it, this is a genre movie, and it has its requirements, even if they run counter to the film’s sensibility. (Even the obligatory slick cutaways to second-unit footage of badass helicopters and landscape shots of the Panama Canal feel like they’ve been spliced in from another film.) We should be grateful for what we have — an atmospheric, effectively nasty, quietly tense little action flick that’s a lot more than one can hope for in the dog days of January.