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'Contraband' deals in illicit fun, not substance, critics say

January 13, 2012 |  2:59 pm

After the end-of-the-year wave of prestige pictures and award-seasons hopefuls, the popcorn-movie machine is ramping back up. Case in point: "Contraband," the new heist flick starring Mark Wahlberg as a reformed smuggler pulled back into the underworld to bail out his hoodlum brother-in-law. The film, a remake of the 2008 Icelandic thriller "Reykjavik-Rotterdam," is receiving mixed and mostly moderate reviews.

Times film critic Betsy Sharkey deems "Contraband" a "very gritty bit of greased action [that] does a decent job of shaking the sluggish out of January." Wahlberg succeeds in "making lethal look neighborly and necessary," Sharkey says, and he pulls off the role of both man's man and ladies' man. Director Baltasar Kormakur, composer Clinton Shorter and cinematographer Barry Ackroyd all perform adroitly; only "screenwriter Aaron Guzikowski, in his feature debut, piles on a few too many new twists." All told, " 'Contraband' is an action-junkies playground. In January, sometimes that's enough."

The New York Times' Manohla Dargis finds the film to be absurd in plot and "largely thrill-free," but it does at least offer "low-key kick" and "a reliably winning Mark Wahlberg." Kormakur and Ackroyd also score points for their fresh visual take on New Orleans, "avoiding trees draped in ghostly Spanish moss and all the Big Easy rest," instead "shifting between street-level grunge and the city from high above, sweeping across the gaudily lighted night and eerily belching smokestacks."

The Wall Street Journal's Joe Morgenstern echoes Sharkey, writing that "Contraband" is "a thoroughly satisfying entertainment, and, in this season of lowered expectations, a nice surprise." In the "uncommonly well-crafted action adventure," Wahlberg hits his marks and his costars hold up their end: Ben Foster is intriguing as his best friend, Giovanni Ribisi chilling as his nemesis, Kate Beckinsale "strong and yet vulnerable" as his wife. Morgenstern adds that Kormakur has a sure hand for action sequences but knows when to turn down the mayhem and add a bit of emotion, a nice touch.

San Francisco Chronicle movie critic Mick LaSalle says the film is ridiculous but enjoyable, and in fact, "One of the things that makes it enjoyable is that it's so ridiculous." The plot, LaSalle says, is somewhat incomprehensible — "it's impossible to keep track of the caper because the movie never tells us how the smuggler does what he does" — but the story is sort of beside the point. LaSalle warns, "You may notice that in between laughing at 'Contraband' you'll be leaning forward a little in your seat and worrying about the characters and even laughing in a few places where you're supposed to."

But if a fair share of critics are gauging "Contraband" as entertaining if inconsequential, others, like the Chicago Sun-Times' Roger Ebert and Salon's Andrew O'Hehir, agree only with the latter part of that assessment. Ebert opines, "I'm getting tired of violent retreads of these heist elements," and O'Hehir calls the film "a massive and chaotic drag."

Like it or not, there are plenty more action movies just over the horizon, including the Steven Soderbergh spy thriller "Haywire," the vampires-versus-werewolves-versus-humans flick "Underworld Awakening," the Alaska-set Liam Neeson survival pic "The Grey" and the Denzel Washington-Ryan Reynolds teamup "Safe House," to name a few. Buckle your seatbelts, everyone.


Busy, busy Mark Wahlberg

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— Oliver Gettell

Photo: Mark Wahlberg and Ben Foster in "Contraband." Credit: Patti Perret / Universal Pictures

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