Wednesday 14 March 2012

One for the money: "Contraband"

A man, a plan, a canal, Panama. Nothing runs quite as smooth as that old palindromic favourite in the new thriller Contraband, but it's a useful distillation of the no-frills plot you get here. The kind of banker B-movie the Hollywood studios have recently taken to throwing money at in the knowledge similar material has proven cost-effective elsewhere, it co-opts the hardly fresh "one last job" template from 2008's Icelandic thriller Reykjavik-Rotterdam, appointing that film's producer-star Baltasar Kormákur as director; it was presumably greenlit once last year's Fast Five (in which a similar group of heroic rogues staged a smash-and-grab raid on another South American location) went past a certain box-office figure - providing further insurance for the newly nervy suits at Universal - though Kormákur also drops in elements of the blue-collar second season of The Wire, the better to give what's essentially a hi-octane runaround some semblance of dramatic depth. Little about Contraband is original, but on a scene-by-scene basis, it plays.

Mark Wahlberg is Chris Farraday, a former smuggler-turned-home security expert who's obliged to assemble a crew to smuggle counterfeit money out of Panama as a way of getting his wife's brother (Caleb Landry Jones) out of hock with local ne'er-do-well Giovanni Ribisi. Farraday's plan is a straight in-and-out, but the mission inevitably generates rather more stress than was originally intended, and part of the film's fun comes from the variety of elements it throws in its hero's way: everything from J.K. Simmons with a moustache as the captain of the ship on which Marky Mark and his grungy bunch stow away, to the bloody shootout between police and bank robbers Farraday strays into once he's finally got ashore.

The cast might generously be described as affordable - the money's gone on the stunts, and making the script work, which in this case is no bad thing - but they've been selected with a connoisseur's eye. That uncomprehending frown working overtime as the obstacles pile up, Wahlberg makes a no-nonsense everyman, bluntly yet effectively contrasted with Ribisi's trademark gold-standard weaselling, and good use is similarly made of Lukas Haas's jitters as an underling who has to load a van into a rising shipping container (from the inside), and Ben Foster's growing character smarts as the best friend/protector who's in deeper than anybody suspects; the latter's lapse into alcoholism feels like a subplot a European-influenced thriller would take more seriously than its US equivalents. (Even Kate Beckinsale, bequeathed tramp stamps and blonde highlights, appears liberated from all that Underworld juvenilia, in an otherwise nothingy hairdresser-in-distress role.)

Kormákur has not too much to worry about, save to keep the whole thing moving, but he handles the old-school, metal-and-sparks action scenes with aplomb, and - working with The Hurt Locker and Ken Loach cinematographer Barry Ackroyd - works plenty of widescreen local flavour into the Panama sequences. In the end, Contraband feels something of an in-and-out job itself, a one-weekend raid on the box-office: you'll see it Friday or Saturday night, and have forgotten about it by the time you go back to work, but it's admirably unpretentious, and brisk enough to provide value-for-money entertainment. At what appears a dysfunctional time for the American mainstream, maybe functional is the best we can hope for.

Contraband opens in cinemas nationwide from Friday.

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