The Review Revue: CONTRABAND

In “The Review Revue,” we turn dozens of movie reviews from all over the Internet into one handy blog post. It’s like super-concentrated orange juice for film criticism (with less pulp and Vitamin D). This week: we steal some critical perspective on CONTRABAND.

2012′s surprisingly strong start at the box office continued last weekend with CONTRABAND, which earned — or, I guess in this case, counterfeited — an estimated $28.8 million from Friday to Monday, making it one of star Mark Wahlberg’s strongest openings ever. But did CONTRABAND deserve that massive monetary haul? Or did it rip off its customers the way Wahlberg’s character rips off a priceless Jackson Pollock painting? (More on that later.) Let’s find out.

Director: Baltasar Kormákur
Writers: Aaron Guzikowski
Cast: Mark Wahlberg (Chris Farraday), Kate Beckinsale (Kate Farraday), Giovanni Ribisi (Briggs)
Plot Synopsis: A former smuggler becomes a current smuggler again in order to bail out his brother-in-law after he loses a valuable package and enrages his employer.

Rotten Tomatoes Score: 46%
Metacritic Score: 51

Most Positive: Mary Pols, Time:

“There’s even a diversion involving, of all things, a Jackson Pollock. Is the Pollock theft a bit too much? The absurd bloodbath involved in getting it is, but is endurable for the ensuing gag about the $140 million painting continually being mistaken for a dirty old tarp. CONTRABAND’s sense of humor is charmingly macho, real meat and potatoes stuff. Literally. “Oh I just stole some decent beef,” says [one of Chris' fellow smugglers] airily, when a guard asks why he’s mucking about amongst the containers. The guard grunts with pleasure as he walks off; a little criminality in service of the stomach is all right with him. The movie is an easy pleasure, every domino falls into place. Chris and gang aren’t the A-Team, but they get more than a passing grade.”

(In Other Words:) CONTRABAND is as solid as its star’s arm muscles. It won’t change the way we look at art forever like, say, a Jackson Pollock canvas, but CONTRABAND is more than satisfying enough for an early year thriller. Speaking of Pollock; as Pols mentions, there’s a continuing and hilarious running gag involving an invaluable Pollock painting, stolen by Diego Luna’s Panamanian crime lord with Wahlberg’s assistance. It keeps popping up in the film, and keeps getting mistaken for a worthless, paint-splattered tarp. The joke also serves as a fine metaphor for what CONTRABAND represents to moviegoers searching for quality entertainment in the frequently crap-filled month of January. They go expecting the worthless paint-splattered tarp. But every once in a while that tarp turns out to be a diamond in the rough.

Most Negative: Ben Sachs, Chicago Reader:

“Several graphically violent scenes of women and children in jeopardy make this, ultimately, beneath contempt. There’s no sense of consequence to the film’s images of torture—unless you count an absurd happy ending that has the victims’ family members making out with millions in stolen loot. This is the most appalling kind of Hollywood fantasy, suggesting that even psychological trauma can be exchanged for cash value.”

(In Other Words:) The filmmakers would have been wise to smuggle a little more morality into their picture. I’m not sure I agree with Sachs, though. True, the movie is a fantasy. Most Hollywood movies about criminals are (see THE STING, OCEAN’S 11, et. al.). The ending is absurd, but most Hollywood endings are. I don’t know what makes CONTRABAND’s version of that fantasy any more appalling than the rest. The violence again women in CONTRABAND pales in comparison to that in THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO — as does the sense of pleasure the film takes in extracting revenge from the woman’s attackers. At least to my eye, CONTRABAND doesn’t glorify or relish the opportunity to torture Kate Beckinsale’s character — she’s being abused by vile, despicable men, and the movie treats them and their actions accordingly. Still, Sachs isn’t the only critic to voice these complaints; perhaps it’s a borderline issue best decided in the eye of the beholder.

Most Typical: Michael Phillips, Chicago Tribune:

“Movies like CONTRABAND aren’t really into existentialism; they’re about what happens when twitchy, raging character men like [Ben] Foster and Ribisi, along with stalwart under-player J.K. Simmons as the cargo ship’s dour captain, go up against a movie star assured enough to make a little something out of not much.”

(In Other Words:) Good actors doing good work can elevate so-so material, as happens here. The plot of CONTRABAND is plenty familiar — TheWrap‘s Alonso Duralde compared its story outline to a Mad Lib — but it’s enlivened by actors who refuse to play down to their tired premise. Ribisi, Luna, Foster (Wahlberg’s former smuggling partner), and Simmons (the captain of the vessel Wahlberg’s using to mule counterfeit currency), represent a veritable potpourri of character actors, who each strike various pleasing notes from grizzled to haunted to gruff. To his credit, director Baltasar Kormákur (who starred in the original Icelandic version of the film), doesn’t hurry the action, taking his time to explain some of the ins and outs of smuggling and to develop the characters. Ribisi’s sleazeball gains a complicated core, Foster’s sober alcoholic fights with his inner demons, Simmons’ straight-laced hard-ass reveals ignoble ideals, and Luna’s psychotic kingpin he, uh, — all right, so Luna’s character isn’t quite as developed. But he does own a wolf, and he feeds people to it. That’s pretty hardcore.

The One Review You Have to Read: Dana Stevens, Slate:

“Though there’s no question he’s been wonderful in movies as diverse as THREE KINGS, BOOGIE NIGHTS, THE FIGHTER, and I HEART HUCKABEES, Wahlberg is no accent-mastering shape-shifter, no saturnine Leo Di Caprio or whimsical Johnny Depp: What you see is what you get. But this true-to-his-word decency, this simplicity, is precisely what you cast Wahlberg for. I had plenty of time to consider the actor’s appeal during the unspooling of the otherwise nondescript CONTRABAND, and here’s what I came up with: Mark Wahlberg is attractive because he seems genuinely, effortlessly masculine rather than anxiously, compensatorily macho. You believe he could singlehandedly spearhead an international smuggling scheme while also believing he’s a sweet, vulnerable family man hopelessly in love with his wife.”

(In Other Words:) Mark Wahlberg deserves more credit than he gets as an actor. This is a topic that’s come up quite a bit this week. As Stevens mentions earlier in her piece, The New York Times‘ Adam Sternbergh made a lucid case for Wahlberg as the greatest actor of his generation; a claim I considered in a less lucid blog post of my own. Though Sternbergh be exaggerating Wahlberg’s talents slightly, I think he’s a lot closer to Wahlberg’s value as an actor than you might initially think. Lots of CONTRABAND’s reviews cite the film’s inherently nonsensical storyline and absurd plot twists. But as Stevens notes, there is one truth at its core, and that’s Wahlberg’s performance. Even if we don’t believe all the smuggling craziness, we always believe Wahlberg. And that pulls the picture through.

The Critical Consensus In One Sentence From One Review: “Don’t be fooled. You’ve seen this movie before, even if you haven’t seen this movie specifically.” — Scott Tobias, NPR.

CONTRABAND is now playing in wide release.