The crux of the argument against Mark Wahlberg is that his screen persona is at odds with itself. While he’s dedicated to making movies that affirm his belief in old-school values like duty to his family, loyalty to his roots, and honoring his elders, he sees no conflict if those movies also involve kicking ass, brandishing weapons, and sticking it to the man by making money any way he can. Wahlberg’s usual character is a deeply honorable, old neighborhood boy with knotted muscles, a small emotional register, and a curiously affable mean streak, who’s liable to leave his enemies breathing through a plastic tube even while he’s perpetually intent on breaking out of the street life into clean, legal prosperity so that he can be a simple family man. More often than not (Three Kings, Four Brothers, Shooter, The Yards, The Fighter, etc…) clean prosperity just isn’t in the cards for a Wahlberg character, so he’ll have to take matters into his own hands, whether they’re above or below the law, to get ahead the way he knows he can. If his character resembles anyone of substance, it would be one of those Henry Hill-esque mafia hangers-on, only with a backstory written by men without the gifts for subtlety of Martin Scorsese and Nicholas Pileggi, so that instead of jail time, they generally wind up with a clean getaway, the girl, and millions of illicit dollars.
Wahlberg plays his trademark persona to a T in Contraband, though, because the city is big on shipping and Wahlberg’s character is a fiend for smuggling, the neighborhood he comes from this time is somewhere in the sweltering sticks of New Orleans. Wahlberg plays Chris Farraday, described early on as “the John Lennon of smuggling,” who, as the movie begins, has hung up his criminal spurs to settle down with his wife (Kate Beckinsale), his two sons, and a moderately lucrative business installing alarm systems for New Orleans’ wealthy. Farraday is the Wahlberg standard, a hood gone straight and doing well for himself, though not quite as well as the real-life Mark Wahlberg, who climbed up from the juvenile halls of south Boston to become a major movie star. Anyway, as with most reformed crooks who were good at their trade (at least the ones in the movies), it only takes a nudge to push Farraday back into the racket.
The nudge comes when his wife’s wet-behind-the-ears kid brother (Caleb Landry Jones) winds up in debt to a dope-running sleazebag named Briggs (Giovanni Ribisi) and, being only a kid, is unable to pay. Particulars like age don’t matter to Briggs, a man whose sickly prison tattoos and greasy Mohawk/mullet telegraph his inherent nastiness to anyone willing to look at him. Briggs assures Farraday he’ll get the money he’s owed, whether he has to kill a kid, threaten a wife, crash his truck through a store window, or perform any number of other outlandishly villainous acts. Stuck between family in trouble and an unreasonable lowlife, Farraday is left with no choice but to emerge from retirement and carry off one last big score.
Nothing so simple as stealing will earn him enough to satisfy the thugs after his family. In fact, the only way for Farraday to make the money he needs is to go back to doing what he’s good at: smuggling… contraband. Which requires a days-long journey to Panama on a commercial sea freighter, the purchase of a mound of counterfeit cash from a trigger-happy gangster (Diego Luna), the stashing of the cash in the bowels of the freighter — under the nose of both a crooked captain (JK Simmons with a syrupy Southern drawl) and helicopter-riding Customs agents — then the selling of it to an omnipresent Irish gangster (David O’Hara) who also happens to be bankrolling the business of Farraday’s old smuggling partner, off-the-wagon alcoholic Sebastian (Ben Foster).
Complex as this all may sound, it’s only the tip of the iceberg of Contraband’s constant logic-defying plot twists. But what’s missing from all of it is the feeling that any of it needed to happen. The reason the movie offers for Farraday’s recklessly elaborate scheming is simply that he’s addicted to it, that he loves smuggling so much he’s willing to leave his family at the mercy of New Orleans’ grossest thugs if it means a chance to get back in the game. Although he’s put to us as the best in his game, he’s still not smart enough to try to smuggle something a bit closer to home, somewhere he can keep a closer eye on his wife and kids.
Like Mark Wahlberg himself, Contraband wants us to care about its family values while loving it for kicking ass at the expense of them. This is the commonest symptom of an action movie (not to mention an action movie star) that has chosen the wrong path. Unbearable as it was at times, Fast Five, a movie similar in feel that far out-macho’d Wahlberg, had very little pretension towards the obligatory family-drama story it was saddled with. Faced with a choice between balancing the action with characters we cared about and just admitting they hadn’t the talent for characterization and barreling us over with said action, the makers of Fast Five wisely chose the latter. Wahlberg, and the team of cronies he’s assembled to make him look tough in Contraband, have attempted the former. The best that can be said of the result is that it’s unpredictable. The worst is that, for an action movie, it’s very dull.