There's a squalid, revved-up species of movie that I've come to think of as the January thriller. It might star the aging-but-still-killer Liam Neeson, the fighting-back-from-disgrace Mel Gibson, or someone who never had a star to fall from. Yet whoever the hero is, the genre's defining characteristic is its no-frills dedication to delivering the B-movie goods, to immersing us in matters of betrayal, revenge, vehicular mayhem, and righteous ass-kicking. Given how low our expectations are or should be for January thrillers, it's always a pleasurable surprise to encounter one that approximates ingenuity, or even a hint of wit. So I appreciated the showpiece sequence in Contraband in which a trim, lightning-quick Mark Wahlberg, cast as a retired smuggler who's drawn back into the game, attempts to score a pile of counterfeit bills in the tin-shack streets of Panama City.
Wahlberg's Chris Farrady heads down to Panama, on a merchant vessel run by a corrupt captain (J.K. Simmons), to pay off a debt that his screwup brother-in-law (Caleb Landry Jones) owes to a drug lord (Giovanni Ribisi, giving his tattooed, greasy-sideburned version of a bad Marlon Brando performance). When Chris first sees the funny money that he's arranged to buy, he knows that something's off so he calls for a bottle of iodine, a drop of which reveals that the bills aren't up to scratch, because they weren't printed on starch-free paper stock. (You've got to love the detail of the expertise.) He then locates the gangster with the real-deal fake bills, played by Diego Luna, the pensive costar of Y Tu Mamá También and Milk, exchanging his sensitive aura for a gruff, Che Guevara-as-sociopath makeover, which he inhabits as if born to it.
The gangster is a chum of Chris' from his smuggling days, so everything seems good until Chris discovers that his satchel of cash has been stolen, at which point he's forced to assist in an armored-truck robbery that might have come right out of The Town. As Luna's hooligans pull a paint-spattered canvas out of the truck, cutting it out of its frame, we see only a corner, which is just enough to reveal that it's a Jackson Pollock (the painter's name isn't mentioned). Then they hide the canvas in plain sight by using it as a back-of-the-van cover rag! It's hilarious that a work of art worth $140 million keeps getting ignored by brutes who simply don't recognize what it is.
If all of Contraband were that clever, it might have been an honorable entry in the action-heist genre. As it is, the movie, directed by Iceland's Baltasar Kormákur (it's a remake of the 2008 Icelandic thriller Reykjavik-Rotterdam, which Kormákur produced), sandwiches its good bits into a conventional macho pressure cooker. Kate Beckinsale, as Wahlberg's wife, keeps getting terrorized by Ribisi and others, including a weaselly Ben Foster. The woman-in-peril stuff is second-rate, giving off a whiff of exploitation. And the plot hangs on one too many blink-and-you'll-miss-'em coincidences. Yet Contraband, while often grungy and far-fetched, does keep you watching. And in January, that's recommendation enough. B