Baltasar Kormakur remakes the 2008 Icelandic thriller Reykjavik-Rotterdam, which he himself starred in, and if the original naming convention had been retained would have been called New Orleans-Panama. Mark Wahlberg is on board as a producer and also stars as Chris Farraday, an ex-smuggler now living the quiet life with his wife Kate (Kate Beckinsale), but he’s drawn back into the game to clean up a mess when Kate’s younger brother (Caleb Landry Jones) gets caught smuggling drugs. The job should just be smuggling currency, but Chris soon finds himself part of an elaborate heist, and Andy further complicates matters by procuring more narcotics. The stakes are high, the pace is fast, and Contraband remains engaging throughout.
Dress the familiar tropes of a crime thriller in the dour earnestness and drab local colour of Europe's north, and the result is 'Nordic noir': Norway's Insomnia (1999) and Headhunters (2011), Sweden's Millennium trilogy, Iceland's Jar City (2006) and Reykjavik Rotterdam (2008), plus Wallander and The Killing (for Swedish and Danish television respectively). In all of these, Hollywood cliches are revitalised by their transplantation to a European setting, where they must acclimatise to their new cultural context and different filmmaking sensibility.
Contraband travels in the opposite direction. An American remake of Oskar Jonasson's Reykjavik Rotterdam, it tries to re-import the new credibility of the whole Nordic noir movement by putting Baltasar Kormakur, the Icelandik director of Jar City and star of the original Reykjavik Rotterdam, at the helm (in his second Hollywood foray after 2010's Inhale). Yet now, brought back home to Tinseltown, all the tired old formulae - Mark Wahlberg's reformed smuggler Chris called back for 'one last job', Giovanni Ribisi (as violent thug Timmy) channelling Joe Pesci at his most psychotic, the double-crosses and triple bluffs - have been stripped of their freshness, like tattered third-generation copies of already hackneyed conventions.
Apart from the odd colourful insult, Aaron Guzikowki's screenplay feels shopworn, and likes its characters too much to let them suffer the consequences of their extra-legal actions for long. "Nothing's going to happen," Chris tells his wife (Kate Beckinsale) after revealing that he must do another smuggling run to clear her brother-in-law's criminal debts. "It's going to be ok," he tells her again, boarding a ship for Panama where illicit pick-ups and explosive shootouts await. "Don't worry," he reassures fellow smuggler Danny (Lukas Haas) as they head towards an unhinged Panamanian gangster (Diego Luna) with a reputation for "cutting off people's heads". Such confident poise, which would seem misguided (if not insane) rashness in any sort of reality, ultimately proves justified here by a series of happy coincidences and serendipities contrived to guarantee the protagonist's success at every turn. Apparently Chris's principled refusal to traffic drugs is enough to exonerate him from his many other, highly profitable crimes, so that we will cheer him on in his upwardly mobile (and morally questionable) pursuit of the American Dream.
Contraband may help Kormakur smuggle his way into Hollywood (and his direction is the best thing about the film) - but he has made much better movies at home.
In a nutshell: It is criminal that a director of Kormakur's talent should make the run from the gloomy authenticity of Jar City to this bland Hollywood fare.
By Anton Bitel