Heads get smashed, kids are terrorized and a Jackson Pollock painting takes plenty of abuse in the scuzzy B-movie world of “Contraband,” a reasonably swift and effective reworking of the 2008 thriller “Reykjavik-Rotterdam.” Ditching its predecessor’s Nordic chill to focus on a sun-baked New Orleans-Panama City smuggling run, this solid if disposable genre exercise maintains a hard-driving line of action and a commitment to one-damned-thing-after-another storytelling that carries it past any number of narrative speedbumps and preposterous detours. Canny star vehicle for Mark Wahlberg should deliver the theatrical and ancillary goods for Universal.
Directed in a rough-and-ready handheld style by Icelandic multihyphenate Baltasar Kormakur (“Jar City”), “Contraband” reps an unusual case of a foreign-born filmmaker helming the American remake of a movie he previously produced and toplined (“Reykjavik-Rotterdam” was directed by Oskar Jonasson). Working from a mechanically efficient screenplay by tyro Aaron Guzikowski, Kormakur wastes little time setting up the circumstances that compel former world-class smuggler Chris Farraday (Wahlberg) to accept the thrill of one last job.
A blue-collar Louisianan who’s long since settled down with his wife, Kate (Kate Beckinsale), and their two kids, Chris is pulled back to the dark side by Kate’s idiot kid brother, Andy (Caleb Landry Jones), who botches his own smuggling operation and consequently runs afoul of a local dope dealer (Giovanni Ribisi). With no legal means of raising the dough to bail out his brother-in-law, Chris assembles a small team to board a Panama City-bound container ship and run counterfeit bills back to New Orleans, leaving his family in the care of his longtime buddy, Sebastian (Ben Foster).
Intrigue mounts as Chris and his cohorts, passing themselves off as shipworkers under the nose of the rightly suspicious captain (J.K. Simmons), stay barely one step ahead of discovery and capture. Once the men reach Panama and things go as wrong as they possibly can, Kormakur orchestrates a succession of impossible risks and hairsbreadth escapes, including a violent heist run by a thug from Chris’ past (played by a greasy Diego Luna) and several bit players who yell, wave guns and keel over right on cue.
Getting the money to the ship on time becomes a crazed exercise in creative multitasking, and despite the routine nature of the mayhem, the setpieces generate momentum not only through editor Elisabet Ronalds’ shrewd pacing and cross-cutting, but through the picture’s mildly amusing attitude toward its own beat-the-clock logistics. While the Panama-lensed portion offers no downtime with which to establish a real sense of place, the local tourism board seems unlikely to embrace the national image presented here, so pervasive and unremitting is the atmosphere of grungy, violent depravity.
That overwhelming mood of corruption and criminality extends to the Louisiana-set scenes: Chris refuses to smuggle cocaine but, as he soon learns, those close to him aren’t nearly so virtuous. The film’s attempts to wring emotional drama from the spectacle of the endangered Farraday family often tilt into outright risibility, most disturbingly with regard to Beckinsale’s Kate; the filmmakers were clearly enamored enough with the image of her head being slammed against a wall that they opted to use it twice.
Fans of thuggish showboating will get more than their fill from the ensemble here: Though they share no screentime, Ribisi (only slightly less out-there than he was in the recent “The Rum Diary”) and Luna seem to be dueling for the title of most menacing facial hair; Foster gets ample opportunity to unleash his inner hothead; and David O’Hara brings his Scottish brogue to the role of a lofty Louisiana crime boss. That leaves Wahlberg to stand up to all of them as the principled man of action, and he carries the picture with ease and low-key charm in a role that slyly takes advantage of his own bad-boy-made-good persona.
The lean but muscular production is most impressive in its scenes aboard the nearly 900-foot-long S.S. Bellatrix (for interiors) and a 325-foot-long vessel (exteriors), as Barry Ackroyd’s camera skillfully maneuvers its way through claustrophobic quarters and around shipping containers. Clinton Shorter’s music supplies pulsing accompaniment.