You probably don’t need me to tell you to see "Contraband," America. Not if the box office is any indication. But I’m here to convince the unbelievers.
First, here’s what you need to know: NOTHING. Just let the plot wash over you. You have to, because from the beginning, somehow Barry Ackroyd’s images of New Orleans rinse by like water over TurtleWax. Which is to say: they could be anywhere.
Granted, I’m a former New Orleanian, so my love is specific: I’ve been moved to tears by a solo trumpet, by a softshell crab po-boy at my neighborhood hang, by the smell of the boil mingling with the night blooming jasmine, by the thumping high school marching band from my ears to my toes. But the sodium-lit refinery under the opening credits could be anywhere; the Crescent City Connection could connect to anytown. The music, credited to several people with the last name Broussard, is, sorry to say, nondescript, just something for Mark Wahlberg and Kate Beckinsale to sway to in the opening scenes. What really tells you we’re in New Orleans is beads.
More advice: experience this as a challenge to your sense of control. Let go. For one, Contraband is based on an Icelandic film, directed by Iceland’s Baltasar Kormákur; what matters is the port setting, and nothing else. For another, cheesy people who don’t love awesome things can live anywhere. Even in New Orleans.
Besides, soon you encounter Giovanni Ribisi, playing a tatted-up gangster. Ribisi is the nemesis to Wahlberg, a smuggler who hangs out on the salvaged couch in the back room of the Old Point bar in Algiers, in which I’ve heard great music. I like his weirdly high voice; it reminds me of Nicolas Cage in Peggy Sue Got Married. I’m assuming it’s intentional that Ribisi aims for the patois of a Yat; it’s the most Louisiana-specific part of the movie.
Kate Beckinsale is The Wife, with blonde highlights and an unbeatable ‘murrican accent. One of those things distinguishes her from the Mentalist guy, and it’s not the highlights. She’s too skinny to be convincingly fighty she spends an amazing amount of the film with her eyes closed. Maybe so you’ll really notice them in Underworld.
The plot is perfectly twisty and turny, as it should be. Maybe they could have untwisted it once to put in some character development. But you really don’t miss that, by the end.
Which, speaking of the end, my second quibble is a real one. New Orleans is the birthplace of wondrous sounds, in jazz, in funk, in voice, in drums, in brass. Even there, I guess it is possible that John Lee Hooker’s “Boom Boom” signifies…well, a general commitment to Delta blues. That song is the final song of the film; it plays as a pelican stands on a dock pylon at film’s end. Hooker, of course, is from Mississippi. Yeah, that’s right next door to New Orleans, by California standards. But musically, it’s a moon away from James Booker, or the Hot 8 Brass Band, or any Marsalis or any Mayfield, or Geno Delafose, or Rosie Ledet, or…but here I reveal myself: American Routes, hosted by Nick Spitzer, is a wonderful show, for which I once worked. Listen to it.
The major object lesson of Contraband is that nobody is more of a man than Mark Wahlberg. In a foreign port, he has no hesitation when a plan to rob one guy requires iodine and shifting loyalties for another. He outsmarts the bad guy (spoiler alert, I guess, but COME ON). The most heterosexual actor in America can scam up a TWIC card at a moment’s notice. You don't need to have watched Season 2 of The Wire to know that faking a document invented after 9/11 to secure our nation's ports is essentially a terrorist act, but I suppose family's at stake. Besides, his black and grey t-shirts are wisely tight to his biceps without being obviously metrosexual.
He is, in fact, the only person in the film who is competent at his job. To be expected, for students of the canon. On the Wahlberg action scale of 1 to The Italian Job, this ranks above Shooter and Invincible, but below Planet of the Apes. That’s probably to be expected too.
What you might not expect is that I liked it more than The Iron Lady, despite my love for Margaret Thatcher (dating to The Special Beat) and Meryl Streep (dating to Silkwood, roughly the same era). The Iron Lady was like someone took a good biopic and dropped it from a great height, shattering it into pieces, some of which are lost for good, some of which were later glued together with many scenes of Maggie striding down a hallway and many more of Maggie talking to her dead husband.
In contrast, Contraband has the structural integrity I expect from an action movie seen at LA Live. If you dropped it, it might bounce right back up and punch you for your carelessness. But not in the face. Never in the face.