The central problem facing most writers or directors of crime films is how to make the audience care for and about characters who do things they would not tolerate (much less approve of) from people in real life. There are several conventional ways of trying to engender sympathy for a protagonist who is a criminal. Contraband uses all of them in a mostly failed attempt to convince us that smuggler Chris Farraday—despite participating in armed robbery, sabotaging an ocean freighter (nearly causing a collision and thereby endangering the lives of scores of workers), smuggling hundreds of thousands of dollars in counterfeit currency which will be used to fund other criminal enterprises, and stealing a $40 million painting to sell on the black market—really is, at heart, a decent guy.
I was not persuaded.
The first step toward making the criminal character more palatable is underscoring that he is a reluctant criminal. When the film opens, Chris (Mark Wahlberg) has turned his back on a life of crime. His imprisoned father even says that he was never more proud than on the day Chris "turned legit." When Chris's brother-in-law, Andy, messes up a drug deal, Chris agrees to pay back the dealer who would otherwise kill Andy. Loyalty to a relative is admirable, but by accepting responsibility for the debt, Chris places his own family in jeopardy, betting the lives and welfare of his wife and kids on the success of his smuggling plan. He pays lip service to being angry at his brother-in-law, but in one telling scene of horseplay on the boat, Andy says he can tell that Chris is glad to be back in action and is not contradicted. Did Chris really have no other choices in this situation, or was the threat to Andy a justification ...1
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