Contraband is a film of many faces, or more specifically, many surfaces, all of them flat. When i say that this film is two-dimensional I mean that as a critical statement and not a technical one; I’m not saying “Don’t bother bringing your glasses,” but “Don’t bother bringing your brains,” which should be obvious, but these days one does have to specify. Though none of that is to say that it’s all bad, just that it is a certain kind of experience. Sure the characters are quite literally one word stereotypes – even someone as unnecessarily verbose as I couldn’t stretch them out past ex-con, damsel, dead-weight or dastardly – and their performances similarly one-note – with the possible exception of Ben Foster, who I am quite a fan of and who gives the most interesting turn here, for what that’s worth – but it’s not the people that make you pay to see such a picture. What draws us to these films is their plot, more specifically its potential for pleasure and all filmgoers know that flatness doesn’t forbid fun.
Unfourtunately in this case the fun is not quickly forthcoming; for the first few minutes of this film I felt entirely detached. Things were happening to people but I honestly didn’t care about what they were or to whom, they didn’t even register to me as denoting any kind of action – it was just like abstract art, coloured shapes on a screen – and this feeling continued throughout, though the shapes did eventually start to form slightly more interesting images. On this literal surface – i.e. that aforementioned screen – the film makes decent sensual use of its New Orleans setting, capitalizing on the unique sights and sounds of that most unique city in its party scenes and establishing shots, though they surely only chose to shoot there for tax purposes as the slight story connection attests. Besides this twist on the palette the pictures style is utterly basic: there are no shots, transitions or sound effects that will stand out to you during the film, let alone after it. This is a film that you forget at 60 frames a second, but then that’s probably for the best.
On the next level down, just above the water on the surface of the scrip, the film finally starts to show some redeeming qualities. Though the advertisements may show this title as if it is an action blockbuster the reality is that Contraband is a heist film with a nice little nautical twist. Though there is no mark, no victim in this crime, the team formed and the tricks used are all very much the same; only instead of the aisles of an opulent casino or the safe of a high-security bank these guys are attempting to pull their job off within the intimate confines of a cargo boat. The scenes that take place on this ship are the films best; watching Wahlberg slyly attempt to outwit the captain and non-corrupted members of the crew is charming in the same way as an old-school cartoon or an episode of Hogan’s Heroes: the film is full of never ending dangers, narrow misses and the cockiness that occurs when a plan comes together right under the nose of the authority figure.
That the captain – who is played in a pedestrian manner by J.K Simmons, a man I would quite gladly watch walk down a street – doesn’t lock Faraday in the brig on sight is silly, that the guards don’t constantly follow him around – especially after the tip is phoned in – is seriously stupid. There are a number of gaping errors and impossible inconsistencies like this in the story – and i say this despite not being the kind of person who looks for or likes spotting such things – and there is no attempt made to mask them with even the slightest of explanatory exposition. Then when the film does attempt to establish an element of the plot it points it out multiple times over so that when the twists come everyone is expecting them. It never lets us out of the loop, though that is both somewhat the point of a twist and an essential structural staple of this genre.
Underneath all this surface there is some depth, though it is not always successful. The film attempts to actually be a movie about the mistakes we make; the way that even a minute error can have a major effect, tragically tearing your life apart at the seams and more importantly how their effect can be exacerbated by your trying to cover them up (that’s right, the moving about smuggling uses hiding as a metaphor). This isn’t new territory, it will seem very similar to what you see in most modern Film Noirs and other escalating crime dramas, but it is somewhat unique within an action setting and I liked that. Well, I like that they tried, what they actually achieved with this was minimal, because of course the meaning comes definite second to the surface story in this kind of film.
You’re probably wondering why I’m thinking about an action movie like this, but to my mind the best action is all about the characters and the story. If you see someone you know, a friend or family member, throw a punch it will probably be one million times more exciting than most choreographed fights, and that is because you care about them. Contraband, for all it does well – and there are some exciting enough scenes scattered throughout a serviceable story – never makes you care and so all that work is essentially undone. The film is an iceberg, impressive maybe but we’re given a bird’s eye view; so it doesn’t mean much to us. Given that the heist genre is seemingly dead Contraband may be better than nothing but unfortunately when you look at the current crop of blockbusters playing in a cinema near you you’ll notice that it really is better than nothing, it’s a decidedly average movie so unless you are a rabid fan of robbers then you should see one of those good ones instead.