Prolific Icelandic actor/director Baltasar Kormákur injects some fresh energy into a well-worn genre trope in Contraband, a big-scale Hollywood remake of the popular 2008 thriller Reykjavik-Rotterdam -- which Kormákur originally produced and starred in. Though its clichéd conceit of a former criminal battling betrayal and impossible odds while resorting to his old ways for "one last job" may perhaps be the most overused device in the history of crime thrillers, assured direction, a game ensemble cast, and a lean script punctuated by some clever twists elevate Contraband just enough to make it a brisk, pulpy diversion in a moviegoing season generally dismissed as the multiplex dumping grounds.
When it came to transporting illicit goods under treacherous circumstances, Chris Farraday (Mark Wahlberg) used to be the best in the business. But all of that changed when he chose to give up his life of crime to start a family with his wife Kate (Kate Beckinsale). Chris learns that leaving his past behind is easier said than done, however, after Kate's brother Andy (Caleb Landry Jones) goes to work for ferocious drug lord Tim Briggs (Giovanni Ribisi) and drops the ball on a major deal. Now, in order to set things right, Chris must smuggle millions of dollars in counterfeit bills from Panama into the United States. And if anything goes wrong, Tim will target his entire family for death. With the help of his best friend Sebastian (Ben Foster) and a crackerjack crew, Chris heads to Panama for one last job. Later, with time running out and a treacherous maze of desperate criminals to navigate, the job gets more complicated, and Chris must race to reach his family before Tim gets to them first.
No one is likely to mistake Contraband for a masterpiece of crime cinema, but taken as a lean and efficient crowd-pleaser, it's difficult to deny that Kormákur's remake delivers on virtually all fronts. By transplanting the setting from the inner city to a creaking cargo ship, the film effectively sidesteps the urban trappings that have become so inherent to this type of story. Working from an original screenplay by Arnaldur Indrioason and Óskar Jónasson, writer Aaron Guzikowski maintains a high level of tension by frequently cutting back to New Orleans to highlight the growing threat to Kate and her two children as Chris races to prevent the situation from spinning out of control. Meanwhile, surprising twists in both New Orleans and Panama ensure we remain riveted to the action, and there are also some unexpected moments of levity that help to smooth over some of the screenplay's rougher edges.
As a desperate family man stuck in dire straits, Wahlberg makes Chris Farraday a likable character, and Guzikowski doesn't cut any corners in showing us just why he earned such a legendary reputation as a smuggler. Meanwhile, Ribisi once again proves that the word "subtlety" simply isn't in his vocabulary as he portrays the kind of criminal scum whose concept of "playing" includes tormenting a defenseless mother and her two frightened children, and Foster showcases why he's earned his reputation as a go-to supporting player. Likewise, screen vets J.K. Simmons and Lukas Haas help to provide much of the comic relief as the hard-nosed captain and nervous criminal accomplice, respectively.
With virtually all of the elements falling into place so effectively, perhaps the only true misstep in Contraband is Kormákur's decision to go hyperstylized during a crucial action sequence in Panama. Though it's difficult to deny a director the occasional indulgence -- especially when it's so brief and inconsequential to the main story -- the scene just draws too much attention to itself and feels a bit out of place as a result. Save for that one forgivable nitpick, however, Contraband is the ideal antidote to the stodgy, awards-season seriousness that dominates January movie screens.