No one will confuse it with Maria, Full Of Grace, but like that more accomplished film about moving illegal material across borders, the little-hyped Mark Wahlberg smuggling drama Contraband benefits from elegant simplicity. (Even its brown-paper-bag of a title gets right to the point). In a quietly assured effort, director Baltasar Kormákur (101 Reykjavík), who starred in the 2008 Icelandic film (Reykjavík-Rotterdam) that inspired Contraband, turns his film’s modest scope into an asset. Kormákur and his collaborators want to tell a simple story cleanly, efficiently, and with a refreshing dearth of frills. They more or less realize their aspirations because they aim so low.
Wahlberg stars as a once-notorious smuggler who has traded in a dangerous life outside the law for a less glamorous but more stable gig running a home-security company. Wahlberg’s tidy life becomes complicated when his fuck-up of a brother-in-law runs into trouble with customs during a smuggling run and ends up dumping an expensive shipment of drugs. Wahlberg consequently finds himself in the debt of a bottom-feeding drug dealer, played with mustache-twirling abandon by Giovanni Ribisi, and agrees to do one last smuggling run to Panama City to get his brother-in-law out of a jam.
Duded out with facial and neck tattoos and a borderline-incomprehensible Cajun accent, Ribisi delivers a frothingly over-the-top performance that seems to belong in a louder, more obnoxious, and generic action movie. With the exception of J.K. Simmons’ formidable mustache—Simmons is a lot of fun as a hardass ship captain—Ribisi’s performance is the only element of the film that calls undue attention to itself. Wahlberg is always better as a character actor than an action star, but Contraband plays to his strengths by casting him as a fundamentally decent working-class man forced by circumstances into a desperate situation. Contraband’s modest goals keep it from ever soaring too high: It’s pretty much exactly as good as it needs to be. It’s little more than an effective genre film, but in this era of bloated, convoluted epics, that’s cause for minor celebration.