Starring Mark Wahlberg, Kate Beckinsale, Ben Foster and Giovanni Ribisi. Written by Aaron Guzikowski. Directed by Baltasar Kormákur. Rated R. Opens 1/13.
Everyone gets old. As our favorite action stars from the days of the big-budget shoot-em-up testosterone flicks of the '80s and '90s have started to grow a little less hair on the tops of their heads and a little more out of their ears, Hollywood films have started to do a bit of navel-gazing on aging. 2010's The Expendables celebrated these aging action heroes with a bit of a nudge and a wink (a sequel is set for release this August). 2008's The Wrestler left us feeling that maybe homeboy should have just cut his hair and retired. But there's no stopping it: even the hunkiest of heroes get old.
But Mark Wahlberg is not old. Mark Wahlberg is still young and quite virile. So when Contraband opens as a sort of jerky reflection of life after crime, with Wahlberg awkwardly shifting between his trademark south Boston bad-boy slur and a more suitably suburban speech pattern, it just feels ... well, awkward. The movie gets off to a sputtery start. Chris Farraday (Wahlberg) was once the Houdini of heists, but left that life behind him when he married Kate (Kate Beckinsale) and had two little boys. But when Kate's brother Andy (Caleb Landry Jones) dumps $700,000 worth of coke on a drug deal, invoking the ire of comical kingpin Tim Briggs (Giovanni Ribisi), it becomes Chris' problem, and just like that he's back in the biz.
And all of that takes a terribly long time to set up. Too long. Far too long for a shoot-'em-up heist flick. The audience starts to get antsy. Then: ACTION.
Once Contraband ditches all the family frippery it quickly becomes a fast-paced heist thriller. In the same vein as the equally fast-and-fun Ocean's 11 (and with just the faintest smack of Traffic), Contraband is guilt-free brain candy with no other purpose but to entertain – and entertain it does! It's The Italian Job on a ship in South America. Giovanni Ribisi is deliciously trashy as the slimy crime boss (it's a shame he lacks leading-man looks because he truly is a fine actor); Ben Foster, as Chris' close friend and confidant, plays his conflicted role with sincerity; Beckinsale is more or less expendable but gives a good show when she's around.
But Mark Wahlberg is best when he's just left to be Mark Wahlberg: badass and beefcakey. He sets up the heist, gets other players in on the scheme, fields a few double-crosses and walks out of a firestorm unscathed, all with his signature smirk. As the plot thickens like gelatin setting, Wahlberg's doing Jell-O shots and having a grand old time. And therefore so are we.
Contraband is based on the 2009 Icelandic film Reykjavik-Rotterdam, and while the source material is a little hard to come by, the star and producer of the original, Baltasar Kormákur, is the director here. One could assume the two films to be fairly consistent. While it initially feels like "family noir" and Mark Wahlberg's last stop before the next Spy Kids sequel, Contraband ends up being a fun romp (through a strangely well-policed Panama City, which is probably the plot point that will demand the most suspension of disbelief from the viewer). —Nicole Rupersburg