Mark Wahlberg delivers the goods in “Contraband,” a B-movie about smuggling in and out of boozy, corrupt New Orleans. It may telegraph its punches and follow that “one last job” heist picture formula. But the cascading collapse of first one best-laid plan and then another and the odd moment of jaw-dropping surprise make this a thriller with more than a few nail-biting moments.
Wahlberg plays Chris Farraday, a smuggler who has gone legit — selling household alarm systems. His old man, Bud, is in prison. His wife, Kate (Kate Beckinsale) runs a beauty salon. They have two kids. He’s wised up and left “the life” behind.
But his wife’s younger brother (Caleb Jones) hasn’t. And after he dumps drugs overboard when the Customs and Border Protection guys board his ship, the kid’s in the hole to a pretty bad hombre, played with his usual goateed glee by Giovanni Ribisi. To save the kid and his own family, Chris takes on that one-last-you-know-what.
And just as sure as Chris reassures Kate — “I know what I’m doing, nothing’s gonna happen,” you know at least half of that statement is a whopper. No amount of help from his pals (Ben Foster, Lukas Haas) will make this go smoothly.
Hiring the director of the film this is based on, the Icelandic thriller “Reykyjavik-Rotterdam,” pays off not so much in the script, which follows a hard-bitten formula, even down to the dialogue. “Don’t TELL me you don’t miss this,” Ribisi’s smuggler-villain squeals on seeing his old colleague back on the beat. Baltasar Kormákur ratchets up the suspense as the tale ups the ante — escalating miscalculations, accidents of timing and betrayals.
Kormákur as fascinated by the world of modern merchant vessels — the popst-9/11 security that’s on board, the quick turn-around on hitting port, forcing Chris to take one wild gamble after another as he tries to pick up his contraband in Panama. Diego Luna plays a Panamanian mobster he has to haggle with and J.K. Simmons is the imperious, drawling ship captain who is furious to discover “the spawn of Bud Farraday” has signed on to his crew, a crew that includes such Chris cronies as Tarik (Lucky Johnson) and Olaf (Ólafur Darri Ólafsson, an Icelandic actor from the original film).
They were going to call Olaf “Igor” at one point, but every movie set aboard a merchant ship has to have an Olaf. Just as every modern thriller has to hinge on cell phones. And every Mark Wahlberg actioner has to include a few beatdowns and that epic moment when he has to warn the bad guys — “I’m coming for you!”
Sure, we pretty much know where this is going once it gets going. We’ve been here before. But with its sleazy side of the Big Easy settings and its Scandinavian spin on action and violence, “Contraband” is still a thoroughly entertaining boat ride.
MPAA Rating: R for violence, pervasive language and brief drug use
Cast: Mark Wahlberg, Giovanni Ribisi, Aaron Guzikowski, Diego Luna, Ben Foster
Credits: Directed by Baltasar Kormákur, written by Aaron Guzikowski, based on the Icelandic film “Reykjavik-Rotterdam”). A Universal release. Running time: 1:50