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Thursday, Jan. 26, 2012 01:45 pm

Inspired cast and clever twists elevate Contraband

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From the 1930s through the 1950s, double features were common in American cinemas and the film that played on the lower part of the bill was referred to as a B-movie. These were exercises in narrative economy, as those who made them knew that their plots were familiar to audiences and their intent was to deliver an entertaining story in a crisp, tight manner. Baltasar Komakur’s Contraband is very much a throwback to these kinds of movies as it features all of these elements. What elevates it – slightly - above its B-movie status is the strong cast the director has gathered, which delivers performances far superior to the material they serve.

Mark Wahlberg is Chris Farraday, a former smuggler who’s gone straight, having settled down with his wife (Kate Beckinsale) and kids and opened his own home security company. However, his domestic bliss is turned on its head when his brother-in-law (Caleb Landry Jones) botches a job for a local hood (Giovanni Ribisi) and can’t make amends. The only thing that will make it right is if Chris helps with a big score – smuggling $40 million in funny money through the Panama Canal – something he has no interest in doing but is forced to, once his own family is threatened.

As I say, this is pretty standard stuff and the caper itself is nothing special. However, the complications that arise as Chris attempts to make things right are inspired and lead to some genuinely thrilling moments. Of particular note is a heist our hero gets inadvertently sucked into with a Panamanian crime lord (Diego Luna) who sets out to rob an armored car. The chaos that ensues is smartly lensed by Komakur as the action is logical and easy to follow. The revelation of what they are stealing and how it is treated is quite clever and will have art lovers the world over simultaneously cringing and laughing.

What makes the film work are the performances by the cast, all of whom play their characters straight despite the absurd circumstances they find themselves in. Wahlberg has turned into one of our most reliable action heroes, delivering plausible thrills with a sense of palpable menace. Meanwhile, Beckinsale makes the best of her damsel-in-distress role while Ribisi, like a puppy freed from a pound, chews up everything in sight with his hammy turn. Equally fun is J.K. Simmons as a crusty ship captain who knows something’s amiss on board his vessel. To be sure, no one would have blamed any of these performers for phoning in their part in a movie such as this, but their professionalism makes Contraband criminally entertaining. 

Contact Chuck Koplinski at ckoplinski@usd116.org.

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