By Brian Lafferty
January 13, 2012 (San Diego) – Contraband is a goofy mess. It inspires laughter at the wrong moments and reticent admiration for its actors, who display a work ethic not unlike the horse in Animal Farm, but are deserving of a better film. Part of me wants to tell you to see it for its awfulness, but I can’t. Time and money are precious. Maybe it when it comes out on home video.
Mark Wahlberg plays a former smuggler who gave it up for a wife and family. It would have stayed that way if his sniveling brother-in-law (Caleb Landry Jones) didn’t botch a smuggling. A powerful drug lord (Giovanni Ribisi) gives him an ultimatum: acquire for him a huge stash of counterfeit bills or his family will die. The rest of the film is a concoction of plot cul-de-sacs, bad shootouts, car chases, and other assorted violence as Wahlberg’s makeshift team tries to smuggle the counterfeit bills from Panama to the United States.
The film is so badly shot it calls for an argument against digital cinematography. Almost all scenes shot in the dark aren’t adequately lit for digital video. As a result, these shots are full of distracting image noise. Image noise is like the grain you see on film but it’s bad, ungainly “grain.” It’s something I would expect in a debut student film, not one from a major studio.
Contraband also suffers from an overabundance of close-ups. The movie was shot in an aspect ratio of 2.35 : 1. If you’re going to shoot that wide, there has to be a good reason. Movies with a large ensemble cast like St. Elmo’s Fire or films with a lot of action sequences and stunt work like True Lies are suited for this aspect ratio because a narrower one wouldn’t leave enough room.
Director Baltasar Kormakur and cinematographer Barry Ackroyd waste that expanse with a seemingly endless string of close-ups and medium shots. Action sequences are too “boxed in.” Violent scenes, shootouts, and fisticuffs are shot in extreme close-ups with a jerky handheld camera. It’s both suffocating and incomprehensible.
In some important scenes, nobody thought to include key shots that would make visual sense to the audience. In one scene, when the guys take the counterfeit bills out of the cargo container and onto the ship, the filmmakers don’t bother to feature an aerial shot so that people could see where the smugglers are in relation to Customs. All attempts at suspense are consequently rendered moot.
The oddest thing about Contraband is that everybody tries very hard to take it seriously. It has all the trappings of a heist comedy if you omit the bloody gunplay, the violence against women, and guns being pointed at children’s heads. Ribisi is more of a caricature than a feared drug lord thanks to his exaggerated Italian accent. Or at least I think it’s an Italian accent. Does it matter? The more the actors try to play it seriously, the funnier, and worse, the movie gets.
FOOTNOTE: Shortly after publishing this review, a colleague informed me that the film was shot on 35 millimeter film and put on a digital file format for the screening. The issues I noted were due to the the poor digital projection at the screening. This is one of many reasons why theaters shouldn't be quick to abandon 35 millimeter projectors in favor of digital. I apologize for the error and not making sure my facts were correct. Although I take back what I said, it is my own personal policy to not go back and revise past reviews, except to correct spelling and grammatical errors. So even though what I said was incorrect, I will not remove it. My other opinions in this review still stand.
Contraband is now playing in local theaters.
A Universal Pictures release. Director: Baltasar Kormakur. Screenplay: Aaron Guzikowski, based on the film “Reykjavik-Rotterdam.” Original Music: Clinton Shorter. Cinematography: Barry Ackroyd. Cast: Mark Wahlberg, Kate Beckinsale, Caleb Landry Jones, Ben Foster, Giovanni Ribisi, Lukas Haas, J.K. Simmons, and Diego Luna. 110 minutes. Rated R.