Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art


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PostPosted: Sat Jan 14, 2012 3:13 pm 
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MARK WAHLBERG IN CONTRABAND

Going astray -- just one more time

January is seen as Hollywood's dump-the-rubbish month. And that may be true, but it has its plus side. Movies that come out at this time are pleasantly free of Oscar pretension. You can let your hair down and enjoy a good old B-picture, the current version of grindhouse. It's a favorable season for action movies, which rarely win awards but often do entertain as well as show off various kinds of movie-making chops.

Among the actioners, Denzel Wasnington is soon to appear as a rogue CIA man in Safe House. Liam Neeson will save an oil drilling crew whose plane crashed among Alaskan wolves in The Gray. We may want to skip Channing Tatum in the sentimental Nicolas Sparks-esque weepie The Vow, but join him and some interesting-sounding costars helping Soderbergh get down and dirty in Haywire, which will feature a female "black ops super soldier."

Friday, January 13 brought Contraband, a hyperactive, violent smuggling movie with Mark Wahlberg as Chris Farraday, ace runner of illegal stuff across borders who's gone straight and -- what else? -- gets called back into action and moves a very large quantity of counterfeit US bills (and incidentally some cocaine and -- spoiler alert -- a hundred-million-plus Jackson Pollack painting masquerading as a rumpled tarp in a van) to placate weasely baddie Tim Briggs (Giovanni Ribisi), who's mad at Chris's young brother-in-law Andy (Caleb Landry Jones) for losing $700K-worth of Briggs' cocaine. While Chris is down running the caper with a little crew including Andy and Lucas Haas, and running into an ill-starred Diego Luna, Ben Foster, as Chris's longtime partner and pal and fellow AA member, is back in New Orleans protecting Chris's two little kids and his wife Kate (Kate Beckensdale) from Ribisi's scene-stealing menace.

Some might think Contraband is utter chaos. Every conceivable thing goes wrong with Chris's project. But Baltasar Kormákur, who starred in a 2008 Icelandic version of this story, Reykjavik-Rotterdam, and now directs it in English, speaks the language of action quite fluently. It's the unexpected muddle that produces the excitement, particularly when a ship is being held up at the Panama canal so Chris & Co. can load on the fake money and all kinds of dangerous complications occur. Through them all, as people die or seem to die, the story moves steadily forward to a satisfying conclusion.

This is no MI4, but that's a good thing. The shootouts and chases are complicated and violent, but they go light on the explosions and spectacular special effects. The flashiest visuals are simply the result of Barry Ackroyd's cinematography, which is handheld up close but also shoots the action elegantly from high above, whether focused on the freighter, New Orleans, or the wilder side of Panama's dock-warehouse district.

Wahlberg is "reliably winning" (Manohla Dargis), and P.J. Simmons, as the ship captain, is reliably formidable. Ben Foster, whose intensity and looks remind one of Ryan Gosling, is plenty strong in his ambiguous supporting role. First-timer Aaron Guzikowski's screenplay isn't particularly plausible, but the action is too breathless for that to matter. The boat is well shot, including the places the smugglers hang out and hid the swag in. Cell phones, as is common today, play a huge role, providing many opportunities to shoot scenes simultaneously at home and away from home. I'd be tempted to say just too much bad stuff happens, except that it all gets straightened out satisfyingly at the end.

And as bad as it may get, it's fun. When Andy asks Chris on the boat if he's happy to be running contraband again he grins widely and says "I love it," but adds, "Don't tell Kate." Sloppy and implausible though this movie may be, it conveys the risk-taking pleasure of smuggling really rather well. Getting away with something, slipping stuff by people, crossing borders, and winding up rich looks like fun, if you have the stomach for it. Contraband is a fantasy trip to brighten up the wintertime. And there will be more.

Contraband was released in the US January 13, 2012; UK release is March 16. Also released this weekend: the inspirational musical Joyful Noise and the teenage monster story directed by Lynne Ramsey We Need to Talk About Kevin. Coming next week: Haywire, Underground Awakening (Beckensale's horror action franchise), Red Tails (about black pilots in WWII), and the modern-dress Shakespeare adaptation Coriolanus, directed by and starring Ralph Fiennes.

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©Chris Knipp. Blog: http://chrisknipp.blogspot.com/.


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