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.

Mark Wahlberg as Chris

Mark Wahlberg as Chris

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 for doing something he was inclined to do anyway?

Kate Beckinsale as Kate

Kate Beckinsale as Kate

Another way in which the criminal protagonist is often softened is that he is supposed to have a code. In this way he shows himself, while flawed, to be preferable by contrast to other criminals and thus worthy of our respect. Contraband gestures once or twice at this convention. Chris initially refuses to smuggle drugs, implying that the smuggling of counterfeit currency is somehow less insidious than smuggling the actual drugs that the money will be used to buy. More directly, while the drug dealer (Giovanni Ribisi in full-out, crazy-man mode) is willing to beat up Chris's wife and threaten his kids, Chris cuts short an assault on him when he sees the dealer's daughter is watching them. The ship's captain is shown to be corrupt on a grander scale than Chris, and Chris's loyalty is contrasted with another character's unexpected betrayal. None of that makes Chris good, though; it just makes him not as bad as the people he is stealing for.

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Ben Foster as Sebastian

Ben Foster as Sebastian

Finally, criminal characters can sometimes engender sympathy by exercising skill in their enterprise. Even if we don't approve of the ends to which talents are put, the audience can still admire cleverness, preparation, discipline, or intelligence. As criminal geniuses go, however, Chris is no Professor Moriarity. Contraband is essentially an action movie, so it is more concerned with putting Chris in situations where he can shoot or fight his way out of a jam than in ones where he can figure things out. The one scene in which Chris has to make a deduction was so badly telegraphed that rather than making him look smart for his realization it makes him look dumb for having been fooled so long by someone not particularly bright himself.

Even with those complaints and the fact that Chris swears like a sailor (pun intended), I was ready to give Contraband an average rating until a scene in which Chris is cornered into participating in an armored car hijacking and several of the guards are shot and killed. While Chris himself does not pull the trigger, he participates in a criminal enterprise that results in people dying. That he shows no contrition about the consequences his actions have for innocent bystanders is a hard pill to swallow, particularly during a scene in which he celebrates learning how much the stolen painting is worth without giving the least thought to how it came into his possession or who had to die so that his brother-in-law might live.

Giovanni Ribisi as Tim

Giovanni Ribisi as Tim

One definition of cynicism is the quality of "showing contempt for accepted standards of honesty or morality," especially by "exploit[ing] the scruples of others." Contraband is a very cynical movie. It exploits our scruples about harming innocents (particularly Chris's wife and kids) to try to get us to accept the lie that smuggling is a victimless crime and to cheer as a "hero" a criminal whose ultimate justification is little more than that the ends justify the means. By the end of the enterprise we are left to ponder not just why Andy is any less culpable or any more worth saving than anyone else in the drug trade, but also how Chris getting wealthy from the proceeds of someone else's murderous enterprise makes him any better than the creeps who threatened to kill his own family.

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Talk About It

Discussion starters
  1. To what extent, if any, do the threats to Chris's family mitigate his moral responsibility for the consequences of his actions? Is there anything you would not do to protect your family?
  2. Chris says he is willing to smuggle counterfeit money but not drugs. What might motivate this distinction? Does it make you feel any differently toward him? Should it?
  3. Is Chris a good smuggler (in the technical, not the moral, sense of the word)? How much of his success is attributable to planning, preparation, or skill, and how much is attributable to chance, luck, or fortunate timing?

The Family Corner

For parents to consider

Contraband is rated R for violence, pervasive language, and brief drug use. It has a lot of violence, including gun violence, destruction of property, and fighting. Beckinsale's character is threatened several times and beaten up once by the villains. Two children are threatened with a gun, which accidentally fires, but misses them. Profanity and obscene language is extensive. Several characters are shown snorting cocaine. One character is nearly buried alive.

Our Rating
1½ Stars - Weak
Average Rating
(2 user ratings)ADD YOURSHelp
Mpaa Rating
R (for violence, pervasive language, and brief drug use)
Directed By
Baltasar Kormákur
Run Time
1 hour 49 minutes
Mark Wahlberg, Giovanni Ribisi, Kate Beckinsale
Theatre Release
January 13, 2012 by Universal Pictures
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