Contraband is not Mark Wahlberg’s best work, but it is still a really good ride. It pulls out some smart moves, even while challenging the suspension of disbelief a little much, and does it all with a lot of heart and fun.

The people who say it’s just a simple and run-of-the-mill action movie overlook a surprisingly good plot and a terrific performance from Ben Foster.

Here’s a preview:

And now some deets:

Released January 13, 2012

Written by Aaron Guzikowski,  Arnaldur Indriðason (original Icelandic screenplay), and Óskar Jónasson (original Icelandic screenplay)

Directed by Baltasar Kormakur

Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Kate Beckinsale, Giovanni Ribisi, Lukas Haas, and Ben Foster

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Contraband is an American version of an Icelandic film. In fact, the American version is directed by the star of the Icelandic film.


The film follows Chris Farraday (Wahlberg), a legendary smuggler who has gone straight. He has a wife (Beckinsale) and two boys now and runs his own security business. The problem is that Kate, his wife, has a lame brother, Andy (Caleb Landry Jones) who was roped into doing a smuggling job and screwed it up. So now we have Tim Briggs (Ribisi) going after Andy and threatening to kill him if Andy doesn’t make it up somehow.

So of course, Chris steps in and has to save the day. Add to this conflict the fact that Briggs starts threatening Chris’ family, and we have some pretty good tension. Then we add Sebastian Abney (Ben Foster), a friend so close to Chris that they’re practically brothers. They worked together and now each has gone legit. Sebastian is left behind to watch over Kate and the kids while Chris does a smuggling job wherein a bunch of counterfeit bills will be hidden on a ship coming up from Panama.

Now we have the operation, which is conducted by a group of men who have obviously worked together previously. These men know each other, have a history that is very nicely shown in their chemistry and interactions, and are real people. The group dynamics are one of the best part of the film.

Twists and turns come along as they ought to for a heist film, but sharing them here would be mean.

That said, there are a couple of plot blotches that bother me. One is that I don’t see how Farraday had the time to do what he does to fool everybody at the end. Two is that I don’t understand how a professional thief could NOT guess what that painting was.


Contraband unfolds as you would expect it to, with the plan going awry and Chris having to think fast and be resourceful. What’s nice is that the plan doesn’t go awry simply because a story like this demands tension and conflict and writers artificially stuck some twists in. The twists come because of characters’ choices. And these are choices that are all very nicely motivated.

In fact, the more I reflect on this film, the more I appreciate the arcs that the characters go through, as well as how well motivated the action of the story is. Andy screws things up first out of fear for himself, then out of fear for his sister and nephews. Sebastian causes problems for a multitude of reasons. This is good stuff.

Ribisi does a very fine job as a menacing, pretty much white trash drug dealer who is successful because he is as mean as a starving alligator. His accent and mannerisms are well done. He seems a little small, so the stakes of the film seem a little small, but his insanity makes up for a lot.

Kate Beckinsale is wasted. She does a lot of worrying, makes an idiotic choice, and winds up in very big trouble. I wanted her to be more intelligent and proactive, indeed, it wouldn’t have been that hard to write this character better.

Lukas Haas is building a nice career as a character actor, and he turns in a sensitive and interesting performance here. Yes, some of the tropes he plays out are very predictable, but he convinces.

Ben Foster is the highlight. His character is in a lot of trouble, and Foster plays Sebastian very well as right on the brink of total catastrophe.

I really liked Mark Wahlberg in this. He showed some range and I think his character was quite real. I particularly liked his character’s interactions with Briggs, in that Farraday is just as tough and mean as Briggs and is not inclined to take any crap from him.

Other than the two plot issues and Beckinsale’s character being wasted, Contraband is a great way to start the year’s action movies. I highly recommend this film as a solid, well-written and acted actioner that ends with everyone getting exactly what they deserve.

Content warnings: Plenty of salty language and some ugly violence. No sexuality or nudity.

Writing: 4         Acting: 4          Overall: 4

Don’t believe me? See if my review matches those on Rotten Tomatoes.

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