Film review: 'Contraband' hits the mark as a shoot-'em-up

Every three or four films, Mark Wahlberg does a straight-out action potboiler (“Max Payne,” “Shooter”); the latest is “Contraband.” This time around, Wahlberg plays Chris Farraday, a reformed New Orleans smuggler, who, after a prison term, has given up the life for the sake of his wife, Kate (an underused Kate Beckinsale), and two kids. He now runs an apparently successful home security firm, where his criminal expertise comes in handy.

Unfortunately, the extended family also includes Kate's little brother Andy (Caleb Landry Jones), a novice smuggler who is as inept and cowardly at the profession as Chris is brilliant and brave. When Andy takes part in a dope run that goes bad, local dealer Briggs (Giovanni Ribisi) holds him responsible. Despite having sworn to Kate absolutely never to smuggle again, Chris is forced to go on one last run to save her brother's skin.

Because Chris doesn't want to smuggle drugs, he instead arranges to bring in a couple pallets stacked with counterfeit currency — obviously a tad harder to be inconspicuous about. More insanely, he signs on as a crew member on a trip to Panama and back, under a captain (the ubiquitous J.K. Simmons) who already hates and distrusts him.

Back in New Orleans, his family is under the protective wing of Chris' best friend (Ben Foster), who used to date Kate and is transparently still in love with her. What possible conflicts of interest could he have?

Things go awry over and over again, forcing Chris to improvise brilliant new strategies ... each of which goes further awry, thanks to the treachery and stupidity of others.

“Contraband” was directed by Icelandic actor/director Baltasar Kormakur, a few of whose earlier efforts — “101 Reykjavik,” “The Sea” and the English-language “Inhale” — have been distributed in the U.S. It's a remake of the 2008 “Reykjavik-Rotterdam,” an Icelandic production that, curiously enough, Kormakur produced and starred in, but didn't direct. (Go figure.)

The most obvious change — aside from cast and language — is that “Contraband” is nearly a half-hour longer than the original, largely to accommodate the kind of upscaled action scenes that require a Hollywood budget. In addition, a number of the old plot twists (and some new ones) are set up at greater length for clarity. (It should be noted, however, that there are even more huge, gaping plot holes here.)

Neither of those is a bad thing, but another common Hollywood change does flatten some of what made the original interesting. That is, Kris (as he was called in the first film) has been rewritten to remove nearly all moral ambiguity and texture. Wahlberg's Chris is not only brilliant. He's also a paragon: He reluctantly gets involved in this caper to save someone else's neck. At every turn, he only does bad things to prevent worse things from happening ... to other people.

At the same time, the bad guys are even worse; and actors have been cast to hammer home that point. It's supposed to be a twist when one of them is unmasked as a villain, but the filmmakers have telegraphed the reveal by casting someone whose face immediately engenders suspicion.

Still, if you're looking for a simple good-guys-wear-white story with a bunch of shootouts — nothing wrong with that — this will handily fit the bill.

ANDY KLEIN is the film critic for Marquee. He can also be heard on “FilmWeek” on KPCC-FM (89.3).

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