The Icelandic novel Reykjavik-Rotterdam is probably a nifty little thriller, going by the American version of the Icelandic screen adaptation. Directed by Iceland’s Baltasar Kormákur, Contraband moves the action across the latitudes, to New Orleans-Panama. And the person moving the goods in every which way is that most American of action stars, Mark Wahlberg, who once again plays a good guy gone bad for reasons beyond his control—as he did in the solid, satisfying actioner, Shooter. Despite its Nordic origins, Contraband also fills the bill for a implausible but believable action movie with some fresh kicks; this twisty heist movie has a novelistic feel to it (nicely emphasized by Hurt Locker cinematographer Barry Ackroyd), and until the over-the-top moxie of the crowd-pleasing climax, it’s rather interesting as well as ass-kicking. The corrupt, freewheeling world of international shipping is rife with criminality, a mobile no-man’s land where gigantic cargo ships slip past borders with an impunity that would be unimaginable for airplanes or even trucks.
Wahlberg plays Chris Farraday, a former smuggler who went straight for his wife (Kate Beckinsale, more convincing as a tough chick than you would expect) and kids. But when his wife’s wanna-be-player kid brother (Caleb Landry Jones) bungles a cocaine deal, Chris has to make good to the local druglord, a half-cracked lowlife (Giovanni Ribisi) who threatens his family. Since Chris refuses to deal drugs, he concocts a scheme to repay the cocaine with counterfeit money. The funny money has to be imported from Panama, and so Chris and his crew, including his best friend (Lukas Haas)—newly married and therefore unwilling to take risks—take jobs aboard a container tanker whose captain (the always entertaining J.K. Simmons) has a grudge against Chris. Meanwhile the wife and kids are entrusted to another friend-gone-straight, Sebastian (Ben Foster).
What keeps the film from being a first-class actioner is its lack of suspense. Wahlberg shifts from playing Chris as a straight-edge hardass to making him too affable for the movie’s plot, while the jaunty soundtrack lightens up every conflict, diminishing the seriousness of the situation back in New Orleans, where Sebastian struggles with alcoholism—and a few other things that Chris should’ve been able to detect. Even so, action fans jonesing for some big-screen adrenaline will probably agree that Contraband delivers the goods.