Heist, swindle, and other like-minded genre films thrive or flounder on the mechanics of their story’s dangerously elaborate scheme, a fact ably proven by Contraband, a tale of high-seas smuggling without a clever thought in its leaden, derivative head. Aaron Guzikowski’s script, based on a 2008 Icelandic thriller which starred this film’s director, Baltasar Kormákur, is a mélange of moments any avid filmgoer has experienced myriad times before, beginning with super-smuggler Chris (Mark Wahlberg) having a blissful time with family and friends at a wedding interrupted by a proposition to get back into the business he shunned years earlier for domestic normalcy. Despite being out, Chris is pulled back in when wife Kate’s (Kate Beckinsale) brother Andy (Caleb Landry Jones) botches a job and finds himself in do-or-die debt to criminal Tim (Giovanni Ribisi), a scenario that leads to token hand-wringing before Chris—dubbed “Houdini” for his unparalleled ability to conceal items on cargo ships from customs agents—naturally decides to pull off one last job to protect his family. That in turn engenders a plot concocted with partner Sebastian (Ben Foster) to travel from New Orleans to Panama to purchase, and then transport back, stacks of counterfeit bills, all of which—in the film’s stunningly lame-brained idea of an electrifying ruse—Chris will hide in a hole in the wall concealed behind a tool board.
If ingeniousness is a foreign concept to Contraband, so too are time and space, as director Kormákur—working in the same superficially flashy, wholly obnoxious style as his execrable exploitation effort Inhale—routinely stages 30-second scenes devoid of rhythm and pacing, while also, during one sequence involving a random armored truck attack, compressing the span between events to a laughably fantastical degree. Shooting in jittery handheld, full of staggered, unstable zooms into close-up, Kormákur never lets his camera rest, and yet nonetheless manages to generate absolutely no thrilling or suspenseful momentum. As Beckinsale smiles and screams in a rote female-victimization role, J.K. Simmons (as a ship captain) blandly barks at Wahlberg, and Foster sleepwalks through a part defined by its implausibility, his every action designed only to create standard-issue end-game drama, Wahlberg suppresses the sense of humor he brought to The Departed and I Heart Huckabees beneath bland tough-guy cockiness, exuding an invincibility that, when coupled with the narrative’s lack of creativity, turns the action somnambulistic. Only Ribisi, here embodying yet another of his many wild-eyed maniacs, decked out in tattoos and sporting a weirdo high-pitched voice, seems the least bit interested in bringing some life to the proceedings. Even his overacting, however, can’t mask his villain’s spazzy-psycho conventionality, thereby leaving Contraband‘s defining characteristic not its over-the-top villain but, rather, its more ridiculous depiction of an underworld populated only by men with unkempt facial hair.