Yes, "Contraband" follows the tried-and-true One Last Job formula. Yes, Mark Wahlberg is nestled deep within his comfort zone as a former master criminal who's lived a dangerous life and gone straight.
Still, this is a solid genre picture that knows exactly what it is, has no delusions of grandeur and carries out its task in entertaining and occasionally even suspenseful fashion. That probably sounds like an elaborate way of saying, "Hooray for mediocrity!" But it's January, and we'll take our thrills where we can get them.
Based on the 2008 Icelandic film "Reykjavik-Rotterdam" and directed by that film's star, Baltasar Kormakur, "Contraband" features Wahlberg as Chris Farraday, a one-time expert smuggler who's now living a quiet life as a security consultant in the New Orleans suburbs with his hairstylist wife, Kate (Kate Beckinsale), and their two young sons.
When Kate's younger brother (Caleb Landry Jones) botches a job for volatile local drug dealer Tim Briggs (Giovanni Ribisi, tatted, high-pitched and squirrelly) while pulling into the Port of New Orleans, Chris must come out of retirement to make up the loss to this madman. His plan involves shipping down to Panama City to bring back millions in counterfeit bills; not only does this not go according to plan, it spins wildly out of control. Among the strong supporting cast, J.K. Simmons is the ship's uptight captain; Lukas Haas plays Chris' right-hand man.
Meanwhile, back in the bayou, Kate and the kids become targets of the drug dealer's increasing threats, even though they're supposed to be under the protection of Chris' best friend and former partner in crime, Sebastian (Ben Foster). Beckinsale is stuck in a bit of a thankless role as the victimized wife, but she does try to infuse a harder edge to the character. Besides, another "Underworld" movie is coming out next week, so you'll see her in full butt-kicking mode soon enough. Ribisi, by contrast, massively overdoes the crazy but at least it's a hoot to watch.
Kormakur relies too heavily on shaky-cam tricks and quick, needless zooms to pump up the tension, but some of his set pieces do play out in visceral fashion. An armored-car heist that Chris and his cohorts get roped into helping with at the last minute is one example; this sequence also has the daring to suggest that Wahlberg's character hasn't completely transformed himself into a nice - or even decent - guy after all. The "Contraband" script, written by Aaron Guzikowski, seems more interested in exploring the complexities of its characters' interior lives than a lot of action movies, which is commendable.
There's also an amusing subplot involving a stolen Jackson Pollock painting that's smartly played for some subtle laughs, one that just goes to show that beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
"Contraband," a Universal Pictures release, is rated R for violence, pervasive language and brief drug use. Running time: 109 minutes. Two and a half stars out of four.