Sometimes, all it takes to kick a movie up a notch is to change the setting.
Take werewolf movies. You know what you are getting with a werewolf movie. Lots of shots of the moon. Ghouly old forests filled with mist and moss. And a small village full of tight-lipped locals who are so damn rude they don't even warn the tourists about the high risk of getting devoured by night-monsters.
Pretty tired, right? But what if this was set on the moon itself?
I will give you a moment to collect the pieces of brain that just flew from your head. I mean, think of the implications. Are the werewolves in wolf form all the time? Do they turn into humans every night of the full Earth? If they are constantly wolves, does that make their hunters evil poachers? Anyway, you don't have to go all the way to the moon to make your movie a little different. With the new caper/heist flick Contraband, all it takes is a really big boat.
Mark Wahlberg is an ex-smuggler gone legit. But when his brother-in-law Caleb Landry Jones is forced to dump a load of drugs, crime lord Giovanni Ribisi demands to be repaid. If not, he'll kill — starting with Jones and then moving on to Wahlberg's whole family.
To get the money, Wahlberg gathers a crew and hops a cargo ship for Panama. There, he's arranged to pick up $15 million in counterfeit bills. But he's got just a couple hours to complete the buy — and there's something wrong with the bills.
A good chunk of Contraband takes place on a big ol' cargo ship. I will readily confess that this is movie critic kryptonite to me. I love movies set on the sea. When I'm reincarnated, I hope it's as a sailboat. Possibly a submarine so I can see squids and things. Point is, there is an ocean involved here, so I can't promise the godlike objectivity I typically bring to these judgments of motion pictures about sparkly vampires and musclemen flying through the air on illegally modified cars.
Fortunately for me, then, I think Contraband is going to be a pretty entertaining experience even for dried-out landlubbers who don't get an extra charge out of the movie's unusual container-ship setting.
Director Baltasar Kormakur and writer Aaron Guzikowski don't waste time getting down to business. There is no long stretch of Wahlberg reluctantly talked back into the life of crime he meant to leave forever. It's pretty much "Oh, my brother-in-law is going to be murdered? Well, looks like the answer is crime."
Kormakur, an Icelandic actor/director making his Hollywood debut, brings that same directness to the rest of the movie as well. Wahlberg's plan clicks along so fast through so many wrinkles and twists it frequently borders on the confusing. Alternately, I'm a big dummy who can barely follow a simple crime caper. Which is more likely? Well, let me just say I totally beat the new Zelda game this week. Do you know how many puzzles those games have? Do you really think a stupid person is up to the sheer challenge of Fun Fun Island?
Contraband is fast-paced and ably directed, then, with fun performances out of Ribisi and J.K. Simmons as a hard-ass captain who demotes Wahlberg to cabin boy on sight. (This is another reason the sea is great: arbitrary tyranny.)
But as far as recent action movies go, it can't match up to the spectacle of the new Mission: Impossible or the style of Drive. Its characters are good, but rarely great.
In fact, its best elements are its plotting and editing, and those two things are almost never enough to make a movie into the kind of thing you start telling all your friends about, even the one who hates Mark Wahlberg, and you know before you begin raving that every word you are about to say will be wasted but oh well. Thing is, Contraband doesn't put on any airs. It just wants to have some fun and leave you feeling good. On that front, it nails it.