It's hard to think of Mark Wahlberg as a serious leading movie man without remembering his days as “Marky Mark,” the shirtless, iron-pumping rapper who made “Good Vibrations” a hit back in 1991. Back then, the actor-producer was part of The Funky Bunch, and his rough upbringing and stone cool look were an attraction to MTV audiences. It was Wahlberg’s style that got him noticed, but it wasn’t until 1997’s Boogie Nights that his movie career took off, eventually landing him roles in The Italian Job, Shooter, and Planet of the Apes. This week’s release of Contraband builds on that persona, and the effect is a gritty, intense rollercoaster ride that audiences will love.
Wahlberg plays Chris Farrady, a retired smuggler who’s forced back into the game to pay off a debt to scum drug dealer Giovanni Ribisi, who does scum drug dealer very well. Ribisi is creepy and gives you the feeling that you need a shower every time you see him. Wahlberg’s wife, played by Underworld’s Kate Beckinsdale, is an uncomfortable observer as Farrady heads to Panama and brings his old shipmates along for the ride. Meanwhile, Ribisi and The Mechanic’s Ben Foster keep audiences on their toes, as their dark relationship is revealed later in the film.
Everything about this film is dirty, sweaty, and sleazy, and director Baltasar Kormakur pulls no punches, delivering a solid American version of the original Reykjavik-Rotterdam. There are flashes of comedy but nothing which detracts from the story. For Kormakur, the plan is tension, and he delivers it early and often. But the film also forces us to empathize with Wahlberg and Beckinsdale; we know that fate has dragged them back into this world of high crime, drugs, and people with bad attitudes. In some twisted way, we want these characters to win, even though they must commit crimes to keep loved ones from dying. It’s a philosophy that Kormakur plays off effectively, forcing audiences to commit early and stick around to see how it’s played out. He does give us a chance to gasp for air before being pulled back down, but not too much that you lose interest. And while the film loses energy near the end, the overall effect is a nail biter throughout.
The film isn’t without its issues and it’s not going to win any awards, but Wahlberg and team are fit for their roles in this very good January thriller. Contraband is rated R, and I’d refrain from taking young teens to see it.