The definition of contraband is goods that have been imported or exported illegally. Add to that a bucket of heist movie cliches sprinkled with some credible actors here and there, mix it all together and you have what is a completely average film. The star power can't outweigh the story and the ambition can't get past well, the story. Movies like this, ones we know by heart, are at this point all about the way they are told rather than what they are telling. "Contraband" is a by the numbers action flick that surprisingly skips out on a good amount of the action. After his good run with "The Fighter" in 2010 Mark Wahlberg sat 2011 out but returns early with this one and solidifies what I was always afraid of. The guy is a valid presence on screen sure, he carries himself well and has a certain charisma to him but if his material isn't strong neither is he. It showed in "The Happening" where he was a joke and "Max Payne" where he did about the same thing as he does here. Luckily the guy knows how to pick projects and this has held his head above the water his entire career. He's good when he gets it, he needs to keep exploring his range as he's done lately with ridiculous comedies like "The Other Guys" as well as dramatic material like "The Lovely Bones" where he was miscast, but he did a solid job. "Contraband" is not the next step Wahlberg needed to take, if anything it was one step back from where I expected him to go. To watch Marky Mark and his funky bunch smuggle goods throughout a two hour period while Giovanni Ribisi and Ben Foster are underused while carrying the more intriguing plot is not Wahlberg's fault but he might as well have been smuggling the money right out of our pockets.

Chris Farraday (Wahlberg) and Sebastian (Ben Foster) have
to return to their old ways to protect their family.
Not only have we seen the film before but we have seen Wahlberg play the role before. If you saw "Four Brothers" then you already know Chris Farraday. Wahlbergs character here is a retired criminal who used to be a world class smuggler. He has since become a family man, marrying Kate (yes as in Beckinsale) and settling down with their two sons. Also retired is Chris's best friend Sebastian (Foster). They have both since began their own businesses and seem to be adjusting well to a life with upstanding morals and little risk. Of course, Chris is soon forced back into his old ways when his brother in law Andy (Caleb Landry Jones) decides to start making his own runs and ends up pissing off a drug lord. The tag line on the posters is "What would you hide to protect your family?" and though this would like to make you think that is the main focus of the story we all know why we are really here and that is to watch famous people steal stuff and almost get caught. This would be fun too, even thrilling if it weren't so dull and oddly paced. Like I said earlier though, for a January release that promises to be a mindless escape it depends too heavily on the cliches and twists the story piles on rather than just letting it play out while focusing on the excitement that these scenes should be inducing. While you could say if they had done that I would be complaining about the opposite fact that more time was spent on explosions than on development you would be wrong, because that is not the reason this movie exists. Even if it tried to make genuine people out of the characters on screen the actors would be hard pressed to create something original from the archetypes they've been given.

Briggs (Giovanni Ribisi) is a threat to the new found
peace of Wahlberg's family. 
The real mystery and intrigue of the plot though is the Ribisi/Foster story line. We probably see it coming and sorry if you consider that a spoiler, but it is clearly the more interesting dynamic of the film. If the whole run is going to center around the Panama shoot out we are going to need a balanced focus and more depth to the relationship and backstory Sebastian has with those around him. Foster is a more than capable actor who sways back and forth between generics like this and smaller, indie flicks. He does what he can with his role, as does Ribisi playing up every stereotype there is about a confused white drug dealer. The few spotlights they do get give us a glimpse at what might have been had the script taken that chance of moving from safe crowd-pleaser to insightful caper.

Sure Wahlberg is here to make sure his reputation as a bad ass action star stays strong, but Kate Beckinsale in a role that could be relegated to minor doesn't make much sense; not when she has the lead in a franchise film opening next week. Either she wasn't very busy or it's a great PR move to get her on screen and guaranteed Underworld trailers in front of this movie all weekend. Then you have Diego Luna who rarely takes a role in a big Hollywood production, much less a generic one such as this, as a crazed drug lord. Luna's character Gonzalo does set up the biggest action piece of the film where he and his gang hijack an armored truck to steal some priceless paintings (the fact these are Pollack's isn't revealed until the end, but it is the best running joke in the movie as they use the painting for a tarp). The film tries its best to make Panama a character in the film, but too little time is spent there as is it in the bayou of Baton Rouge where all of our characters reside. The thing is, most of the action takes place on these ships and in this regard the film succeeds as we become acquainted with every aspect of the vessel. We even get to know the dirty, smart alleck captain played by J.K. Simmons, another actor I was equally pleased to see as well as confused by why he was even there.

Chris has a lot on his shoulders when it comes to
smuggling all that cash.
"Contraband" is really nothing to get worked up about though. You go in expecting nothing more than what the final product delivers and it does, in the end, turn out to be a rather enjoyable film; just one you would probably never care to see again. It is a film completely manufactured on what a mass audience feels they need out of a film like this and to a certain degree there is nothing wrong with that. I went to the theater expecting a good crowd but not the nearly sold out one that was actually there. It became clear that what the people were there for was to allow themselves a slight getaway with a reliable star. Wahlberg may not know this many people rely on him to deliver a good solid film but here's hoping he begins to realize it and approaches every project with the care and dedication that he did "The Fighter". It would have made for at least a more engaging time at the movies if not a more action packed one. Because really, isn't that what we all really wanted to see this for?

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