Silver Screen: Contraband *

Silver Screen: Contraband  *
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While nominally in similar genres, two movies could scarcely be less alike than Haywire and Contraba
Bryan Miller

While nominally in similar genres, two movies could scarcely be less alike than Haywire and Contraband. Whereas Haywire was almost too self-conscious at times, Contraband certainly isn't self-aware, charging bluntly forward with a blissful ignorance that would almost be charming if it weren't always headed in the wrong direction.

Would-be September 11 hero Mark Wahlberg stars as Chris Farraday, a reformed smuggler turned legitimate businessman, father, and husband to Kate Beckinsale. It's a good trade. But when his brother-in-law (Caleb Landry Jones) gets in deep with a hotheaded small-time smuggler (Giovani Ribisi, reliably ridiculous), Farraday has to get back into the game for one last job to save the kid's bacon.

Farraday reteams with his old partner, fellow former crook Sebastian (Ben Foster), and gathers together a team of crooks, a veritable Funky Bunch of smugglers, as it were. But the heist goes awry when one of the crew starts taking orders from an outside source, leading Farraday to suspect he's been set up.

Contraband is unauthentic in every way, but perhaps no example is more representative than its generic locale. New Orleans is one of the most distinctive cities in America, yet I didn't notice it was the setting of the film until I saw a logo on the side of a truck. Most of the locations look generic, and could easily have been Southie-- a logical assumption considering Marky Mark's lifelong New Orleans criminal speaks with a thick Boston accent, and almost everyone else sounds vaguely east coast-ish. The two exceptions are J.K. Simmons, who makes a go of sounding like he's at least driven through Cajun country, and Ribisi, who speaks in a nasal whisper and has an accent like a Martian with a speech impediment.

And poor Beckinsale has one of the worst track records in cinema. Her good work-- in Whit Stillman's The Last Days of Disco, the wiry horror flick Vacancy, and David Gordon Green's Snow Angels-- is vastly outweighed by the record-setting suck of Van Helsing, Pearl Harbor, Serendipity, Click, the Underworld series, and the almost transcendentally boring Whiteout. Now this. She's never the reason a movie is bad, but her filmography seems haunted, like she was long ago cursed by an old witch after cutting in line at a video store.

Only Foster's character is remotely interesting, thanks to the actor's quiet intensity-- he's the Ryan Gosling of supporting actors and never seems to get his due. Director Baltasar Kormakur, here remaking an Icelandic film, makes no effort to render the characters sympathetic beyond putting them in tight situations and pitting them against slightly worse antagonists, but none of them seems worth our worry.

Farraday is dumb for throwing himself back into the criminal underworld when he's managed to extricate himself, and he sucks because he's an unrepentant thief who would rather live on other people's hard work than do his own. His brother-in-law is an inept criminal who deserves violent retribution from the villains-- he took a dangerous job in the black market and screwed it up. His wife is a parasite for surrounding herself with criminals and living on the spoils of their criminal enterprise. Bad things should happen to these people. So what, exactly, is the movie's moral dilemma, and why should we care about any of them? Wahlberg’s outlaw here isn't supposed to represent some greater spirit of iconoclasm or serve a self-styled code of honor. There is no subtext. It's just lazy writing in which the heroes are defined only by being less bad than the bad guys.

There will undoubtedly be worse movies released in 2012. But for this brief stint of time, Contraband will enjoy a single distinction-- the biggest waste of time at the movies this year so far.

Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.