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Somehow "Contraband" manages to weave in every cliche of the heist movie without making them feel like they're being pulled off the high shelf and dusted off. We learn in the first five minutes that the hero, Chris, played by a tumor-serious Mark Wahlberg, used to be awesome at smuggling, that he (heart)s his family, that he's now retired from smuggling, but that he will need to make One Last Big Score if he's going to escape the life forever. We find this out because he and some buddies talk about smuggling Ferraris while they whoop it up at a wedding reception (family!). There they also find out that Chris' young brother-in-law Andy (Caleb Landry Jones) has angered some very bad guys by ditching some coke he was smuggling when the fuzz raided the boat he was riding in. This puts Chris in the position of having to come up with a large quantity of money to pay back a violent scuzzbag named Briggs, played by a restraining-order-ready Giovanni Ribisi. Not convinced you've seen this one before? The black dude dies first. Case rested.
But "Contraband" winds up more fun than it sounds. In the end, it gets points for taking on a strangely underrepresented area of crime cinema. The job in question requires Chris and Andy to hop a freighter in New Orleans and hustle down to Panama, allowing director Baltasar Kormakur, an Icelander, to pack us into the claustrophobic confines of a cargo ship. While Chris and a few well-placed accomplices move about like cockroaches, on the way to rendezvousing with some highly unsavory sorts in Panama, the walls close in. Briggs is making threats against Chris' wife (Kate Beckinsale) and young sons, time is short, and Chris' BFF Sebastian (Ben Foster) is doing not the best job of keeping the family safe back in N'awlins. The tone and the pace work, as does the bluesy soundtrack and the dash of cinéma vérité to keep the proceedings a touch off-kilter. Even on the allegedly dry land of south Louisiana, we always feel the sway of a ship beneath us.
Ribisi and Wahlberg turn in strong enough performances that their rivalry should've formed a tighter core to the tension. The shady underbelly of container shipping could've made for a better procedural. Instead, on its Panama trip, "Contraband" lists into shoot-'em-up territory, then back into a blue-collar but less surprising "Ocean's Eleven." If a movie can be simultaneously over-written (action sequences, smuggling drama) and underwritten (does no one have anything unexpected to say?) then "Contraband" hits the sweet spot. Even in small touches, it errs. When Briggs is sending photos and voicemails that Andy's picking up seamlessly on his mobile in a Panamanian slum, you wonder at the roaming plan the kid scored before leaving port.
At least the grit often feels right. The cursory glance that customs agents give to some suspect cargo containers is a reminder of how thin port security is, not just in the U.S. but in most places. All these ships, sluicing in and out of oceans and rivers — they have the feel of something persistent and unexplored. It's only because "Contraband" seems to get so much right in those depictions that the movie feels disappointing for overreaching into different subplots. A more sinister version of "Contraband" would've relied less on lucky coincidences and manufactured family drama and stuck closer to the crimes in question. That movie would be darker and more frightening. But good luck smuggling that film into the multiplex.