Don’t get it twisted, Oliver North enthusiasts. Contraband is not a dramatizing of the Iran Contra scandal, nor is Mark Wahlberg playing your beloved Ollie. Instead, the movie tells the story of Chris Farraday (Wahlberg) dipping into the world of smuggling one last time in order to save his unreasonably sexy wife’s (Kate Beckinsale) reasonably unsexy brother Andy (Caleb Landry Jones). When Andy has to dump a shipment of drugs at the beginning of the film, Farraday is thrust into the life he left, for one last job to pay off Tim Briggs (a gloriously accented Giovanni Ribisi). Early in the film, Farraday and his partner Sebastian (the generally underrated Ben Foster) are referred to as the Lennon & McCartney of smuggling, and throughout the film Farraday proves he is smooth enough to pull off the heist version of Hey Jude, or at the very least Taxman.
This movie has been heavily marketed as an action film, which it is, but it’s not exactly what it appears to be on first glance. When I e-mailed a friend to invite him to join me at the screening I attended, the subject line was, “Do you still like watching Marky Mark murder people?” The trailer sells it as an action-packed romp, which it kind of is, but despite dealing with many of the common tropes in the action genre, Contraband is actually a little cleverer than it might appear. More than anything else, Contraband is about addiction; be it addiction to substance abuse, or “The Life” that Andy seemingly can’t leave, or that Farraday can’t completely remove himself from.
It’s basically Shame, except with more explosions (or at least explosions of a different sort). And even with attempting to be about more than the average action film, Contraband is still pretty enjoyable as simply an action movie. The heist scenes are more intense than I would have expected, and Farraday’s ideas are clever in an ‘Ocean’s Eleven, shot by way of The Bourne Ultimatum’ sort of way. But the best part about the movie is how it isn’t necessarily what it initially seems to be.
There is a gag in the film that revolves around the theft of an expensive piece of art in Panama. The painting is taken off its frame for easier transport, and proceeds to be described by law enforcement as little more than a canvas tarp with ink splotches on it. The painting, if it were hung in a gallery, would be considered high art; here, it is little more than a rag. And while Contraband is far from a high art film, it is more interesting than an outside observer might suspect. It is funnier, smarter, and more interesting than one would guess from watching Marky Mark swag-walk to the tune of Red Nation. Contraband has its flaws – it is a little too fast-paced, Ribisi looks too much like WWE wrestler CM Punk to take seriously, etc. – but to say it is as useless and disposable as some tarp simply isn’t doing it justice.