Dawn.com Movie Review: Contraband – by Kamran Jawaid

The following review was published at Dawn.com, on 17th January 2012. This post is the unedited copy. Dawn.com link is available at the end of the post.


Trading “Funny Money”, More or Less the Hard Way, is a Major Pain in the…

By Mohammad Kamran Jawaid

At the end of the movie credits, when I was in the bee-line out of the screening, I overheard a woman’s voice making a very strange, illogical comparison: “It (meaning Contraband) was ok”, she said. “I mean, it wasn’t Pirates of the Caribbean”. I suppose she was talking about the film’s pop-corn factor. Or maybe someone misguided her that “Contraband” was about immortal mermaids and smugglers – which it is (smugglers, not mermaids).

Let me clarify: “Contraband”, the new money smuggling drama, now playing across Pakistan, is about illegally sneaking huge stacks of counterfeit money from Panama to America, via a big cargo ship (captained by J.K. Simmons). It has two things going for it: Mark Wahlberg, as Chris Farraday the caperer who’s compared to Harry Houdini, and a desperate trailer campaign that relied on stuffing a sizable helping of story-beats into its advertisement. It, of course, won’t help in ticket sales, because the trailer gave “Contraband” the looks of a derivative thriller. Let me tell you one fact I’ve been stressing for quite a while: do not believe the trailers.

“Contraband” is a taught action drama based on the Icelandic film “Reykjavik-Rotterdam”, directed by its lead actor Baltasar Kormakur; and unlike “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”, which kept the original locations when adapting, “Contraband” shifts its geography from Reykjavik and Rotterdam into New Orleans (the state of Louisiana has a good deal of production incentives) and Panama (again, New Orleans, this time in disguise playing Panama).

You know how it goes in movies: a botched smuggling job by Farraday’s inexperienced brother-in-law (Caleb Landry Jones) sucks Farraday back into the biz; and no matter what he insists on, an unbending grin and the sparkle in his eyes, betrays his initial frustration of running this job. The grin, of course, fades away when ““Contraband”” starts whipping left, right and center in the film’s edgy second and third acts, introducing low-key, time-banded conflicts that may at time evoke a solid feel of existentialism to its characters – especially Farraday, Sebastian (Ben Foster) and Tim Briggs (Giovanni Ribisi).

Contraband’s first fifteen minutes were flat–limp, as they introduced former mooncurser, now legit home security expert, Farraday and co. at a wedding reception. A stifled yawn later the screenplay by Arnaldur Indridason and Oskar Jonasson, fast-tracked straight into the caper bit, stringing up elements into a realistic short-form thriller with Wahlberg’s Farraday as its chief engine and Foster and Ribisi as fossil fuel.

Farraday’s choice of illegally imported goods is counterfeit money – as a family man, married (to Kate Beckinsale, playing Kate Farraday) – he has a personal policy against drugs. Foster, Farraday’s brother-like-friend, becomes an impromptu guardian of Kate and children in case Briggs tries to rough-house – which, being the jittery greased gangster he is, he does. There’s a level of destructiveness to both Sebastian and Briggs, which amplifies, sometimes with irrational and plain silly decision-making during the film’s mid-point, when Farraday leaves the ship to fetch the “funny money”.

Despite the slight dip, director Baltasar Kormakur’s indulgence in gritty atmosphere (mostly industrial in landscape and production design), zipping telephoto zooms, stark cuts and clearly manifesting film-grain brings a mature, almost welcoming authenticity to “Contraband”, that’s only heightened by the cast’s universally effective, pacified performance.

“Contraband” may not be as loftily pop-corny as “Pirates of the Caribbean” (again, I don’t understand the comparison), but it is robust in its simplicity. Like so many thrillers focusing on caperers, it features people who are actually happy on their job; never mind the fact that they’re hoodwinking the government.

Released by Universal and Footprint Entertainment. The film is rated “A”. There’s paced up drama, physical violence and a stack load of “funny money”.

The Dawn.com version is at: http://www.dawn.com/2012/01/17/movie-review-contraband.html


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