In the new action picture Contraband, Mark Wahlberg plays Chris Farraday, a retired smuggler who's forced back into the life when his brother-in-law commits a colossal screw-up by dumping a drug shipment that belongs to small-time hood Tim Briggs (Giovanni Ribisi) with a highly combustible temper and an itchy trigger finger. In order to secure the funds he needs to cover his relative's debt, Chris makes one last run to Panama, where a shipment of counterfeit money is awaiting him to transport back stateside. Meanwhile, back in his New Orleans home, his wife Kate (Kate Beckinsale) and their two sons are being menaced by Tim, so Chris calls upon his old friend and partner Sebastian (Ben Foster) to keep an eye on them. But it turns out that Sebastian has a few secrets... ZZZZZZZZZZZZZ
Whoa, sorry... dozed off a little there. Contraband will do that to you. This is a film that's so paint-by-numbers, it could be used as an illustrated guide for how to make a generic action movie (in fact, it already has). Directed by Icelandic filmmaker/producer/actor Baltasar Kormákur (who played the Mark Wahlberg role in the Scandinavian film that Contraband is adapted from), the picture offers absolutely no surprises and only one moment of actual suspense, a scene in which a crane operator hoists one of those giant cargo containers up into the air and the container doors swing open, threatening to dump its contents -- Wahlberg and the van full of stolen money that he's smuggling aboard the Louisiana-bound cargo freighter -- to the ground below.
Otherwise, the movie offers up the standard mix of shootouts, fisticuffs and the odd explosion or two, as well as plenty of shots of Wahlberg standing around glowering at his co-stars in a T-shirt that's tight enough to cut off his circulation. Meanwhile, Ribisi wildly overacts as if he's getting paid by the sheer volume of his delivery, Beckinsale (whose features have reached Nicole Kidman levels of immobility) tears up in virtually every scene and Foster keeps gazing off-screen, as if he's waiting for his agents to show up and bail him out of movie jail. Even the usually reliable J.K. Simmons phones in his supporting performance as the hard-assed captain of the freighter that Chris rides to Panama and back. In its sheer ordinariness, Contraband feels like a real-world version of Matterhorn, the generic action movie that Wahlberg's alter ego Vincent Chase was offered in the Entourage pilot. At least Vince (or, to be more accurate, his best friend Eric) was smart enough to turn it down.
Since Contraband is destined to be one of those movies that plays on TNT or USA at 3:00 in the morning from now until the end of time, there's absolutely no reason for anyone to pay good money to see it in theaters. (Actually, there's no reason for anyone to see it at all, but we're sure there are Mark Wahlberg and/or Kate Beckinsale completists out there who will subject themselves to the tedium of out sheer loyalty.) Instead, head to Netflix and create your own mini-film festival consisting of some of the good -- and, perhaps, under-seen -- movies these actors have made in the past. We recommend:
Movie to Watch Instead of Contraband: Three Kings
Wahlberg's taste in solo action vehicles has largely been terrible, but he was right on the money when he opted to play second banana to George Clooney in David O. Russell's funny, thoughtful and generally kick-ass war movie, set in Iraq right after the conclusion of the Persian Gulf War. Russell's hyperkinetic visuals lend the action sequences a visceral excitement that makes Contraband seem even more pulseless.
Movie to Watch Instead of Contraband: Laurel Canyon
Ever since Pearl Harbor, Beckinsale has largely been swallowed up by the Hollywood machine, jumping from one piece of big-budget crud to the next -- Underworld, Van Helsing, Click etc. But every now and then she remembers that she does know how to act and takes a role in a small-scale, character-based drama like Lisa Cholodenko's 2002 feature about a young couple that moves in with the guy's freewheeling music producer mother (Frances McDormand). Cholodenko nabbed lots of (deserved) recognition for The Kids Are All Right, but this is actually her strongest film to date and a good showcase for both McDormand and Beckinsale.
Movie to Watch Instead of Contraband: Boiler Room
This proved somewhat tricky as Ribisi's filmography is mainly littered with small roles in good movies (Lost in Translation, Avatar) and bigger roles in terrible movies (The Other Sister, The Mod Squad). So by process of elimination, the only movie that both features him in a major part and is any good is this entertaining Wall Street rip-off where Ribisi gets a gig as a broker for an unscrupulous firm and becomes seduced by its fast-living, easy-money atmosphere. Bonus: Boiler Room also features a pretty good Vin Diesel performance before he became a walking parody of himself.
Movie to Watch Instead of Contraband: Alpha Dog
Foster isn't the star of Alpha Dog (that would be Emile Hirsch), but his live-wire performance is the best thing about Nick Cassavetes' uneven, but highly watchable fictionalized version of a true-life crime. Foster has yet to find that one big breakout role (though he was very good in the 2009 drama The Messenger), but at the time, Alpha Dog indicated that he had a good career ahead of him as a character actor.
Movie to Watch Instead of Contraband: The Gift
Speaking of character actors, Simmons is one of the best ones around, stealing scenes in everything from Spider-Man to Juno to Burn After Reading. Still, we never miss a chance to mention this too little-seen entry in Sam Raimi's oeuvre, which ranks up there with A Simple Plan and Darkman as the director's best studio vehicle. And hey, guess who else has a small, but memorable role in The Gift? Simmons's Contraband co-star Giovanni Ribisi! So if you're running short on time for this marathon, skip Boiler Room and kill two birds with one stone by watching The Gift instead.
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