Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Kate Beckinsale, Ben Foster, Giovanni Ribisi, Diego Luna
Rated: R, for violence, pervasive language and brief drug use
Runtime: 1 hour, 50 minutes
Bottom line: A terse thriller from an emerging filmmaker
January has apparently become thriller month on the movie calendar. The next few weeks will be dominated by high action, often violent, gritty action movies, including "Underworld: Awakening," "Haywire," "Red Tails," "The Grey," and "Man on a Ledge."
Even this year's first Shakespearean film, "Coriolanus" (which is outstanding, by the way), looks more like "The Hurt Locker" than an adaptation of the Bard.
Kicking off this month of kicking butt is "Contraband," a tense actioner featuring a star-studded cast. It's also the American debut of Baltasar Kormákur, an Icelandic actor and director whose work has won him international acclaim.
With "Contraband," Kormákur remakes a movie he starred in and produced, 2008's "Reykjavik-Rotterdam," transporting the story to the port of New Orleans.
Chris Farraday (Mark Wahlberg) used to be the best smuggler around, but now he has gone legitimate. He owns a security systems company, is married to Kate (Kate Beckinsale), and has two sons. His best friend Sebastian (Ben Foster) has also quit the business and is a recovering alcoholic.
The problem is, it seems everybody around Chris is still smuggling. This is an unflattering vision of New Orleans in which everyone either is or has been on the take. Chris and Sebastian openly brag about their most inventive heist and con jobs in the middle of a wedding reception as if they were reminiscing about their football glory days.
Inevitably, Chris gets pulled back into the game.
Kate's little brother, Andy (Caleb Landry Jones), "runs a package" of drugs (the movie sprinkles in plenty of smuggler lingo), but customs boards the ship. Andy tosses the package overboard to avoid arrest.
The gangster for whom Andy was working, a weaselly yet murderous fellow named Briggs (Giovanni Ribisi), doesn't agree with this particular decision, so he runs over Andy's car. With Andy in it.
Briggs tells Andy he must repay the value of the drugs within two weeks or Briggs will kill him. But according to the smuggler's code, that debt transfers to Andy's family even after he is dead. Thus is the way of the smuggler, I guess (cue the Glenn Frey song).
Chris recruits a few freight ship workers to help him board a ship to Panama, where he will buy many millions in counterfeit currency to repay Andy's debt.
You don't suppose anything will go wrong during this one last job, do you?
One of the marks of a good filmmaker is whether he can do something exciting with worn-out story scenarios, and Kormákur passes the test here.
The filmmaker and his cast do an effective job of maintaining dangerous energy from start to finish and slowly twisting our nerves.
Beckinsale plays a thankless but vital role. While Chris is away on the heist, Briggs torments and threatens Kate and the children to ensure Chris will follow through. Beckinsale basically gets beaten up over and over. That doesn't do anything to improve film representations of women, but it provides the stakes and tension that give the story a palpable immediacy.
The wind up is slow, but the payoff is big. After a lot of machismo, threats and gun-waving, the big heist begins and the movie takes off. Especially once the story takes us to Panama, where Chris and crew meet a wild-eyed, eccentric kingpin played by Diego Luna.
At that point, the story explodes and the third act is riveting, even if most of it isn't plausible in the least.
"Contraband" is filled with performers who throw themselves into their roles with abandon. Foster seems to enjoy playing characters who slowly reveal unexpected dark sides, and Ribisi revels in characters whose dark sides are on full, manic display.
"Contraband" isn't a great film, but it is consistently entertaining. Fans of Wahlberg and action movie devotees will be very satisfied, and we all get to discover a promising new director. That's about the best we can expect from a January release.
Jeff Marker teaches film and literature at Gainesville State College. His reviews appear weekly in Get Out and on gainesvilletimes.com/getout.