Although there’s little that’s new in this story about a man forced to pull one last smuggling job as everything that could go wrong does, Contraband stands out for its stylistic efficiency, stellar cast, and narrative restraint. The film never tries to exceed its generic parameters and relates its tale with an economy of visual means and verbal exchanges. The hallmark of Mark Wahlberg’s acting career (in addition to starring here, he is also a producer, and his roster of credits grows more impressive with each project) is his canny understanding of his limitations. As the character at the center of Contraband, Walhberg is a stolid, believably stand-up guy who has abandoned his life of crime in favor of normal family life. Wahlberg accomplishes this mostly by showing rather than explaining the plot mechanics.
Contraband is a remake of the Icelandic film Reykjavík-Rotterdam, which stars the extremely versatile Baltasar Kormákur, who now directs this American version. Kormákur is a very active writer, producer, actor, and director, who first gained international attention in 2000 with his dark comedy 101 Reykjavík. The action in Contraband is transposed to New Orleans, where the smuggled goods are slipped into the port from Panama. Wahlberg plays Chris Farraday, who is pulled back into the life after the brother (Jones) of his wife (Beckinsale) screws up big time and owes a huge sum of money to local tough guy Tim Briggs (Ribisi, brilliantly mercurial). When harm is threatened to Farrady’s wife and kids, the reformed criminal returns to the fray in order to protect them.
Filmed by cinematographer Barry Ackroyd (The Hurt Locker), Contraband maintains a jagged, jumpy look that accentuates the story’s tension and ever-shifting moral center. Also complementing the story are the well-chosen actors, who are all top-notch when it comes to conveying ideas through body language and facial expression instead of mere reliance on dialogue. Contraband is a tidy little thriller that makes up in execution what it lacks in originality.