The specific characteristics that make for an action-thriller should be fairly clear. Action is a relatively descriptive word. An action movie usually requires a certain amount of physical conflict, perhaps some chase scenes and some kind of time sensitive event to keep things moving. An action movie should occupy your attention. Thrillers can be different, even cerebral, in nature. A thriller should occupy your mind. An action-thriller should take the tension of a thriller and overlay it with action. Your mind should be racing with both the pace of the action sequences and the tension inherent to thrillers.
In “Contraband,” Mark Wahlberg stars as Chris Farraday, a former smuggler turned security system installer pulled back into the twisted world of New Orleans crime. Caleb Landry Jones is successfully cast as the young wannabe smuggler Andy, the younger brother of Chris’ wife (portrayed by Kate Beckinsale). Andy’s failed attempt to smuggle a shipment of cocaine puts him in debt to a drug dealer and Chris’ attempt to talk with the dealer puts his wife and kids in the drug dealer’s sights.
Once on the hook for his brother-in-law’s debt, Chris hatches a plan to smuggle a large shipment of counterfeit bills from Panama. His plan requires help from a list of characters including his best friend Sebastian (Ben Foster). The plan is forced to change over time as complications push Chris into the over-the-top violence of Panama’s crime lords.
At the same time the drug lord Briggs (Giovanni Ribisi) is threatening Chris’ wife and sons back in New Orleans forcing Sebastian to protect them. This distance makes cell phones take the place of face to face interaction in much of Contraband. The director attempts to establish character relationships and emotional attachments, but they remain tenuous and not very believable. It even feels as though Chris is closer to his crew than to Sebastian, who is supposed to be his best friend.
“Contraband” delivers what should be expected from an action movie. The pace and timing of complications is rapid and continuous. In that I find the greatest flaw. Without much in the way of downtime, a general numbness takes hold. That leaves the film’s climax weak and ineffective by comparison. There are a few attempts at breaks in the action to provide a bit of character development, but they prove inadequate. The thriller aspect is lost under so much action, as tension does not develop effectively.
In the category of action films, characters are often expendable. If anything I was expecting a tragedy to make the characters worthy of some kind of sympathy. That sympathy was never earned, instead the most potentially interesting characters are left in the background and the primary characters are uninteresting. The suspense is lost because the characters in the most danger, have not developed enough to care what happens to them.
Finally there is the plot. This habitually neglected component of the action genre does not find much life in “Contraband,” either. To the extent that plot is usually buried under action in this kind of film, the lack of solid plot is not unexpected, but one can always hope. Instead, what plot is there is too linear and predictable to be very thrilling.
Perhaps my expectations of anything claiming to be a thriller (even one diluted with action) are too high. If I had been expecting a straight action flick, maybe I would have been happy enough with the action in “Contraband,” but as it stands, “Contraband” is anything but thrilling