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The Joys of Action

by Ross Douthat
A review of Contraband

My favorite moment in Contraband, a palate-cleansing little thriller that’s perfect for moviegoers sated by December’s buffet of prestige movies, comes just after Mark Wahlberg’s New Orleans super-smuggler, Chris Farraday, has been yanked off the straight-and-narrow by the inevitable lure of One Last Job. His wife’s none-too-clever brother owes a fortune to a drug gang, and in lieu of paying off the debt, Farraday agrees to ship off to Panama and sneak a huge stack of counterfeit money back through U.S. customs. While his wife frets and his children worry, the smuggler affects the kind of distant, determined, prisoner-of-fate routine that’s required of movie criminals who thought they were out but find themselves getting pulled back in.

But once they’re on the ship together, steaming southward and plotting how to hide their cargo from the rest of the freighter’s crew, his brother-in-law gives him a look and says: “Don’t pretend you don’t love this.” At which point Wahlberg lets the mask of resignation slip, flashes a grin, and says: “I love it. Just don’t tell my wife.”

I can think of quite a few crime movies, from the collected works of Michael Mann to last year’s achingly pretentious Drive, that would benefit from this kind of honesty about what really motivates their lawbreaker heroes and the moviegoers who love them. Contraband knows why its audience is here, and it isn’t to contemplate the existential implications of a life lived outside the law. It’s to root for the bad guy who’s really a good guy against the badder bad guys standing in his way, and to make a brief escape from our law-abiding world into the unique thrills of a complicated heist — or, in this case, a complicated smuggle.

To give us what we want, the movie has exactly what it needs. The cast is made up of reliable B-listers with a blue-collar vibe: Ben Foster as Farraday’s shifty best friend, Sebastian; Lukas Haas as his newly married second-in-command; a bearded, Creole-accented Giovanni Ribisi as the lowlife who runs the drug gang; a mustachioed J. K. Simmons as the captain of the Panama-bound ship; and Y Tu Mamá También’s Diego Luna as a gonzo Panamanian kingpin. (The lone casting mistake is Kate Beckinsale as Farraday’s wife: Even bottle-blonde and working at a hair salon, she’s too aristocratic to pass as a smuggler’s wife.)

Contraband turns these characters loose in three suitably gritty settings: a seedy New Orleans of dockworkers and oil riggers (rather than the Big Easy of tourists and their enablers), the garish perils of Panama City, and the claustrophobic interiors of a working freighter. The director, an Icelandic talent with the wonderful name of Baltasar Kormákur, has an eye for industrial beauty, whether it’s a rusty rainbow of shipping containers awaiting a crane or the long reddish bulk of the freighter easing its way through the green folds of the Isthmus of Panama. For a pulp story, Contraband has just the right amount of pretty.

In his star, Kormákur has an actor of limited range, but one who’s reliably persuasive and immensely likeable when he’s in his comfort zone. As an action hero, Wahlberg is a kinder, gentler version of the Bruce Willis of the Die Hard era: He’s the everyman pushed too far, but he deals out justice with a gentle, regretful air rather than with Willis’s winking bravado. Even if you don’t buy Beckinsale as his wife, you’ll buy Wahlberg as a husband. He’s the rare big-screen bruiser whose emotions seem as real as his muscles.

Off screen, admittedly, that authenticity can be a tad problematic. Promoting Contraband, he was asked about 9/11, when he rescheduled a trip and narrowly missed being on one of the Boston flights that crashed into the World Trade Center. “If I was on that plane with my kids, it wouldn’t have went down like it did,” he told the interviewer. “There would have been a lot of blood in that first-class cabin and then me saying, ‘Okay, we’re going to land somewhere safely, don’t worry.’”

It was an idiotic and offensive thing to say, and he hastily apologized. But there was also something almost touching about it, since the ease with which the idea floated to the surface of his thoughts suggests that Wahlberg participates fully, without any irony or distancing, in the everyman-as-action-hero fantasies that are created for him on-screen. And what more could we ask of an action star, in a sense, than this — that in the quest to make us suspend our disbelief, he willingly suspends his own?

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