January sucks for movies. There, I said it. Traditionally speaking, multiplexes are playing one of two kinds of films around this time of year. There are the high-quality award contenders. And there are stale leftovers held back from the previous year. Yes, there are a few good January releases – ‘The Book of Eli’, ‘Taken’, and ‘Coach Carter’, but these are rare anomalies. We can now add ‘Contraband’ to this prestigious list.  

It seems like every criminal in movie history who decides to put an end to their wicked ways can’t. At least until they pull that one last job. After that, they’re able to reap the benefits of a crime-free life. Such is the case with ‘Contraband’. Chris Farraday (Mark Wahlberg) is an ex-smuggler now installing security alarms and living a quiet life with his wife Kate (Kate Beckinsale) and two young sons. His brother-in-law Andy (Caleb Landry Jones) sets the plot in motion by botching a drug deal for ruthless crime boss Tim Briggs (Giovanni Ribisi). To settle Andy’s debt, Chris is pulled into one last job. At the council of his friend Sebastian (Ben Foster), and jailed father, Bud (William Lucking), Chris assembles a crew to sail to Panama and return to Louisiana with $10 million in counterfeit money.  

There’s a lot going on in ‘Contraband’ – more than I’m giving credit for with my plot description above (Note: I probably described about half the picture – it’s hard to go into any further detail without getting into spoilers). I think we, as viewers, have a good idea of what’s happening, even when some of the details around the heist get complicated. The fine points of counterfeiting (using starch-free paper), the maze-like streets of Panama, the counterfeiter’s hideout, a ship going out of control due a loss in hydraulic fluid, shots of the container parts and giant cranes – all of these showcase director Balastar Kormakur’s impressive eye for detail. He makes the ship container a terrific place to shoot a significant portion of this picture. The casting is also very good – the actors, most of them appearing as if they need a shave and shower, have such a commanding presence on screen. I’m glad that Mark Wahlberg doesn’t even attempt a New Orleans accent. Giovanni Ribisi is great fun as the hyperkinetic drug dealer with a chillingly pitched voice. Equally fun is another loony villain, played by Diego Luna. But the show stealer here is Ben Foster. He’s an excellent actor who has appeared in ‘The Messenger’, ‘Rampart’, ‘3:10 To Yuma’, etc. Mr. Foster crafts a three-dimensional character who is difficult to read, but intriguingly so. Kormakur is great at creating this criminal world, and has made the occupants of this world equally fascinating. In other words, I believe he’s given the actors the flexibility to build out their characters, and Ben Foster has taken full advantage of this.

‘Contraband’ is a superbly crafted caper with a very good sense of pace – the only thing that seems to slow down in the film is the ship containing a cargo of counterfeit bills. There’s never a dull moment. That isn’t to say the picture is wall-to-wall action. There is a fair amount of exposition around the details of the heist. The film takes its time to establish its characters and their relationships with each other and such scenes give the material weight. The most memorable scenes are those held within the ship, and in Panama City when a job within a job goes terribly wrong.

 Is ‘Contraband’ great art? Absolutely not. But in a season of lowered expectations, it is a pleasant surprise. And as an example of its genre, I think it’s very good. Thanks to a great cast, a very talented director, and a strong script. ‘Contraband’ receives an unusually enthusiastic recommendation for a January release from me.

– Jerry Nadarajah

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