Fans of “The Italian Job,” the remake starring Mark Wahlberg, will probably enjoy “Contraband,” which bears distinct similarities to the earlier film. Both are stylish heist flicks, though the current movie has somewhat less panache and humor. But it emphasizes and entangles the values of payback, family, and not least money.
Wahlberg, who co-produced this American version of an Icelandic film starring Baltasar Kormakur (who directs this one), tones down his by now well known persona. We get less of the action hero of his earlier movies and more of the tormented character he showed in “The Fighter.” Playing Chris Farraday, an ex-smuggler bent on going straight as a New Orleans alarm system installer, the former Marky Mark remains fully clothed and has to deal with the problems of his own family as much as those generated by sundry unsavory characters.
Specifically, his kid brother-in-law, Andy (Caleb Landry Jones), has screwed up his own attempt to smuggle in cocaine, leaving him in debt to ex-con Tim Briggs (Giovanni Ribisi) to the tune of $700 thousand. Chris has to make good on the money or Briggs and his thugs will harm not only Andy but Chris’s wife (Kate Beckinsale) and their sons as well. The only help Chris has is his convict father, who has warned him off of the path that landed Dad in prison.
To pay back the money, Chris has to smuggle a load of counterfeit money from Panama. Problem is that the stack is as big as a Mini Cooper. (Fans of “The Italian Job” will catch the allusion.) He enlists the aid of various former confederates, gets his sailing papers through his pal Sebastian (Ben Foster), and sets sail for Central America, under the watchful and suspicious eye of the captain (J.K. Simmons), who somehow has wind of Chris’s unsavory past.
Complications ensue, of course, and director Kormakur, cinematographer Barry Ackroyd, and film editor Elisabett Ronaldsdottir (who worked on the original movie) combine their talents to craft a fast-paced, taut suspense thriller. I also enjoyed the jazzy, bluesy original music of Clinton Shorter.
Some of the timing of events may seem literally impossible, and how the gang can conceal and deliver a load of this size past wary customs officials stretches credulity. But, hey, this is fantasy land, folks. The payoff, literally and figuratively, is done neatly, picking up some apparently loose threads from the earlier scenes. Audience members will have some fun trying to sort all this out as they leave the theater.
“Contraband” is correctly rated “R” for pervasive violence, language, and drug use. Fans of the genre will enjoy the look and the myriad plot twists and double crosses that the heist flick often features. If you don’t take this sort of stuff too seriously, it provides good escapist fare as February looms before us.