It’s easier to measure the characters in Contraband not in degrees of heroism, but in degrees of villainy.

Almost every character in this action thriller, it seems, has some sort of criminal past or is caught up in shady dealings ranging from drug smuggling to money laundering to other forms of organized crime.

That makes it even more difficult for the audience to develop a rooting interest in a convoluted revenge storyline that doesn’t offer many surprises.

Mark Wahlberg stars as Chris, who has escaped his former life as an international drug runner to settle down in New Orleans with his wife (Kate Beckinsale) and children. But he is drawn back in for one last job after his brother-in-law (Caleb Landry Jones) winds up with a major debt to a ruthless crime boss (Giovanni Ribisi).

So Chris devises a scheme with a friend (Lukas Haas), using his old contacts in the drug trade, to smuggle counterfeit bills from Panama to the United States aboard a cargo ship. But when those plans go awry amid a series of criminal double-crosses, his desperation increases as his family faces more immediate danger back home.

The film is a remake of the obscure Icelandic thriller Reykjavik-Rotterdam (2008), which starred director Baltasar Kormakur (The Sea), who is behind the camera for this version that transfers the action from Scandinavia to Latin America.

Filming on location in both New Orleans and Panama, Kormakur tries for a gritty visual approach that includes plentiful hand-held cameras and spontaneous zooms. But it’s mostly for naught because of a script by newcomer Aaron Guzikowski that relies on far-fetched coincidences instead of clever plot twists.

Wahlberg makes a credible action star, and some of the stunt sequences are nicely staged. A handful of scenes aboard the boat create some much-needed tension, such as a race to hide some counterfeit money from suspicious customs agents, and the dynamics between the crew and the no-nonsense captain (J.K. Simmons).

However, with regard to the plight of Chris’ family and friends and his desire to make good with everyone, the storyline is driven by too many nick-of-time scenarios, the repetitive nature of which gradually decrease their impact.


Rated R, 109 minutes.