Contraband feels confusingly like the sequel to a film you're already supposed to know. Like maybe it's the sequel to an Italian Job-eque romp, but whatever the case, you immediately feel as if you're well into a film in which the characters are all known to us, and the plot will be reminiscent of the first film. But there is no first film.
However, all the usual characters are present, there's the retired smuggler Chris Farraday (Mark Wahlberg), his wife (Kate Beckinsale),along with his idiot brother-in-law (Caleb Landry Jones), best friend (Ben Foster), a menacing rival smuggler (Giovanni Ribisi) and a rowdy assortment of other characters that float in and out as they become useful to the plot. In short order we learn that Farraday's idiot brother-in-law has messed up a drug deal, and that Farraday must step in to save him. Unfortunately this means going on another smuggling operation, and this once great smuggler has sworn off such things. However, through love of family, he's convinced and catches the next freighter to Panama where he plans to smuggle something home and gets caught up in the hour or so that he's in port with some local gang warfare. Things back home aren't particularly rosy, and it's a matter of outsmarting both the authorities and his enemies before his family suffers too greatly. But don't worry too much. This is a heist movie, and you've seen one of those before, so you can rest assured everything more or less works out.
Watching the second season of The Wire really prepares you for Contraband in that much of the action takes place at a port or on a freight ship. But there the similarity ends. There's the usual moments we've come to expect from a Wahlberg film such as shots of him walking quickly while talking threateningly on a cellphone, or beating some guys up, or striving to contain himself from beating some guys up. Wahlberg's physique has become so ubiquitous it would seem his arms deserve second billing on every poster. Otherwise, Ben Foster does his Ben Foster thing to perfection, and Giovanni Ribisi makes for a very convincing low-life.
One particularly disturbing element of the film is the plight of Farraday's wife, played by Kate Beckinsale. She is brutally attacked time and again, sexually intimidated, verbally abused and never given an opportunity to be anything other than a victim. At every turn, she is either being hurt by a man or saved by a man. As Beckinsale is literally the only female with a speaking role in the film, I find this more than disturbing, but what's worse is that it is done deftly. These casual horrors are inflicted upon women so often that I wonder if film producers, directors or even writers can even see them as anything other than plot devices. Farraday needs motivation to bring home the goods, and so it's time for villains on the home front to bash the wife around some more.
Aside from hating women and not even pretending to be much other than a heist film with huge plot grievances, Contraband is genuinely thrilling at times. It's a fun movie to watch, but in the end, it's merely "fine." It reminds me of the kind of movie you'd go see with a group of people who find themselves unable to agree on much. Everyone likes Mark Wahlberg, right? Everyone likes heist movies, right? Ultimately forgettable, Contraband is still a pleasant way to spend a few hours for many of us burnt out on awards season fodder.