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'Contraband': Wahlberg rescues film from its formulaic plot

Mark Wahlberg, left, stars with Ben Foster in Contraband.
Mark Wahlberg, left, stars with Ben Foster in Contraband.

Mark Wahlberg delivers the goods in Contraband, a B movie about smuggling in boozy, corrupt New Orleans. It might telegraph its punches and follow that "one last job" heist-picture formula. But the cascading collapse of first one best-laid plan and then another, and the odd moment of jaw-dropping surprise, make this a thriller with its share of nail-biting moments.

Wahlberg plays Chris Farraday, a smuggler who has gone legit — selling household alarm systems. His old man, Bud, is in prison. His wife, Kate (Kate Beckinsale), runs a beauty salon. They have two kids. He has wised up and left "the life" behind.

But his wife's younger brother (Caleb Jones) hasn't. And after he dumps drugs overboard when the Customs and Border Protection guys board his ship, the kid's in the hole to a pretty bad hombre, played with his usual goateed glee by Giovanni Ribisi. To save the kid and his own family, Chris takes on that one last you-know-what.

And just as Chris reassures Kate — "I know what I'm doing. ... Nothing's gonna happen" — you know at least one of those two statements is a whopper. No amount of help from his pals (Ben Foster, Lukas Haas) will make this go smoothly.

Hiring the director of the film this is based on, the Icelandic thriller Reykjavik- Rotterdam, pays off not so much in the American-rewritten script, which follows a hard-bitten formula, even down to the dialogue. "Don't tell me you don't miss this," Ribisi's smuggler-villain squeals when seeing his old colleague back on the beat.

But director Baltasar Kormákur ratchets up the suspense as the tale ups the ante — escalating miscalculations, accidents of timing and betrayals. Kormákur is fascinated by the world of modern merchant vessels — the post-9/11 security that's on board, the quick turn-around on hitting port, forcing Chris to take one wild gamble after another as he tries to pick up his contraband in Panama. Diego Luna plays a Panamanian mobster he has to haggle with, and J.K. Simmons is the imperious, drawling ship captain who is furious to discover "the spawn of Bud Farraday" has signed on to his crew, a crew that includes Chris cronies Tarik (Lucky Johnson) and Olaf (Ólafur Darri Ólafsson, an Icelandic actor from the original film).

They were going to call Olaf "Igor" at one point, but every movie set aboard a merchant ship has to have an Olaf. Just as every modern thriller has to hinge on cellphones. And every Wahlberg actioner has to include a few beatdowns and that epic moment when he has to warn the bad guy, "I'm coming for you!"

Sure, we pretty much know where this is going once it starts. We've been here before. But with its sleazy side of the Big Easy settings and its Scandinavian spin on action and violence, Contraband is a thoroughly entertaining boat ride.

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