Getting out of the game… it’s so hard, it almost makes you not want to get into the game in the first place. If Carlito and Michael Corleone couldn’t work it out then nobody ever will. In Baltasar Kormákur’s Contraband, Mark Walhberg plays Chris Farraday: a major smuggler transporting drugs and counterfeit money into the impenetrable USA via the world’s major cargo lines. But… ah blast! He’s just done his last job, and we missed it. Ah well, everybody out of your seats, lets see what’s showing on screen sev… wait… what’s this? Farraday’s cowardly little brother-in-law just got himself into trouble with the biggest gangster in New Orleans? and now Chris has to dive back “into the game” to save the youngster’s life? Well, it looks like we’ve got quite the film on our hands all of a sudden.
So here we are: a reluctant criminal mastermind has reassembled his trusted, crack team to bring in “one last heist” to save the life of his little brother. If Gone In Sixty Seconds was Speed, then this is Speed 2: it’s the same story… just on a massive boat. Fortunately for us, this is no shimmering ocean cruiser: it’s a hulking, rusted leviathan full of shifty-eyed dock workers and a pompous captain with a thick Southern drawl and a cracked, bitter, evil face. We can smell the stench of oil and metal. We can feel the cramped, tinny confines of the sleeping quarters. Kormákur possesses that very Icelandic ability to translate the salt and grime of the ocean onto film; and it makes for a surprisingly gritty and believable tone for this unabashed action-packed blockbuster.
It’s when the crew touch down in Panama that the film bolts out of the gates, dragging us through the Latin dust like an angry bull. They have a matter of hours to locate the contact, load the huge crates of counterfeit bills into a truck, and get back to the ship before anyone notices they even left. Unsurprisingly the plan falls apart, and suddenly it’s a race against time that is frantic and powerful enough to whip us up into a frenzy. Unfortunately, the unrelenting force of our hero’s progression actually damages the suspense. The film is so eager to get to Farraday’s climactic, heroic ending that we are never really given time to doubt his success or feel he might lose.
The twists and turns of the ending are in turns exciting and hilarious, but again, they are never exactly “edge-of-your-seat”. Ben Foster, Diego Luna, Giovanni Ribisi and J.K Simmons provide wonderful support as the ‘bad guys’, but their power is muted by the inevitability of Farraday’s unimpinged success.
All in all, this is an exciting, evocative, and beautifully shot action movie with some great central performances. It feels gritty and dirty despite its obvious Hollywood sheen; and the ending is still very entertaining despite its truth-stretching and predictability.