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MOVIE REVIEW: Wahlberg shines in 'Contraband,' plot does not

In this film image released by Universal Pictures, Mark Wahlberg, left, and Ben Foster are shown in a scene from "Contraband." (AP Photo/Universal Pictures, Patti Perret)

In this film image released by Universal Pictures, Mark Wahlberg, left, and Ben Foster are shown in a scene from "Contraband." (AP Photo/Universal Pictures, Patti Perret)

Contraband

(R)

2 out of 4 stars

Even if you don't care for Mark Wahlberg as an actor, you can't help but admire and respect his rags to riches story. A high-school drop-out with a criminal record, he became a one-hit Rap wonder ("Good Vibrations" as Marky Mark), then a fashion model, then an action star, then an Oscar nominee and finally one of most successful producers in Hollywood. Along the way he got married, had three children and became a philanthropist.

Wahlberg, while lacking book smarts, is a street genius and recognizes he'll never be Olivier, Nicholson or even Clooney and he's not afraid to surround himself with performers far more talented than him. He never takes on a role that exceeds his limited but effective range and "Contraband" is the kind of movie he does best. It's unfortunate the movie doesn't serve him as well as he serves it.

A remake of the 2008 Icelandic flick "Reykjavik-Rotterdam," "Contraband" is a cookie-cutter revenge/heist affair that's at least 20 minutes too long and takes the better part of an hour to hit full stride. Awash in grimy visuals, herky-jerky camera work, riddled with low-level crime world cliches and telegraphed plot twists, it goes out of its way to look and feel far more dangerous than it really is.

In a manner that practically mirrors his real-life story, Wahlberg plays Chris, a former smuggler who quit the life to start a family and his own security company. He gets pulled back into the fray when his not-real-bright brother-in-law Andy (Caleb Landry Jones) botches a cocaine smuggling job that doesn't sit well with Tim (Giovanni Ribisi), the dirtbag dealer who financed the buy.

At the tentative urging of his wife (also Andy's sister) Kate (Kate Beckinsale), Chris attempts to rectify the situation with Tim, who isn't real keen on what Chris offers up as a solution: millions of dollars worth of high-end counterfeit U.S. currency. This is the first of many gaping holes in the plot and sets up a tedious and overlong second act focusing on an overly convoluted planning session for Chris' master plan.

Enlisting the help of some former cohorts, Chris plans a quick trip to Panama aboard a freighter and a return trip to New Orleans with the bogus cash that will allow him to resume his uneventful family life. As you might guess, Murphy's Law takes over at every turn, forcing Chris to whip up alternative plans on a moment's notice. Not only does he get too close to bodily harm, the delay leaves Kate and their two sons vulnerable to Tim's psycho whims. Luckily (we assume), Chris' recovering alcoholic best friend Sebastian (Ben Foster) is keeping a close watch over Kate and the kids while he's gone.

Director Baltasar Kormakur (who played the Chris character in "Reykjavik-Rotterdam") does nothing here any other mid-level action director couldn't pulloff just as well, but does deliver a movie that looks like it cost $100 million for less than half of that amount. It's good bet he did this by shooting in some of the more undesirable areas of New Orleans and Panama, cutting corners with the set and costume designs, billing Schlitz beer for multiple product placement and scaling down the pyrotechnics. On the upside, if "Contraband" makes even a small profit (which is likely), Kormakur's dance card could fill up quickly, as Hollywood loves low budgets and high returns.

Most of the acting highlights are provided by Ribisi and Foster who, in addition to looking like they could actually be off-screen brothers, share the same kind of sick-puppy, without-a-net style that serves this type of material well. They could have easily switched characters and pulled them off without a hitch.

"Contraband" isn't horrible and is pretty much what we've come to expect from early January releases. It is exactly what it presents itself as: an empty-calorie popcorn diversion. (Universal)