Contraband *** (out of five)

Icelandic wunderkind actor/director/writer/producer Baltasar Kormákur’s remake of 2008’s Reykjavik-Rotterdam, in which he starred and which he produced, casts Mark Wahlberg in Kormákur’s role and shifts the action to New Orleans and Panama, with extended sequences on a large freighter in between. Walhberg’s character Chris is a smuggler who’s gone straight, now living a simple life running a home security company and providing for his wife (Kate Beckinsale) and two children. When his young brother-in-law (Caleb Landry Jones) has to dump a smuggled load of cocaine, ending up in debt to a greasy crime lord (Giovanni Ribisi), Chris, naturally, has to smuggle one last time, and, naturally, things get out of hand.

There’s a lot that elevates Contraband above your average expensive star-vehicle thriller, primarily the milieu. Smuggling aboard large freighters is an unusual subject, and, as far as we may take the ins and outs of that trade as depicted here to be accurate, it’s a pretty fascinating one. According to the basic premise of the film, any large freighter operating between the ports of New Orleans and Panama is likely to be carrying contraband, as, unless there is some sort of clear suspicion, the contents of each of the many hundreds of containers on the vessel go unchecked – they are simply rented out to a company or individual, much as you would rent a storage room at a self-storage facility, or a safety-deposit box. The film purports that such possibilities inevitably create a culture of corruption on the vessels, from the Captain down to the cleaning staff, and that anyone on the crew may be involved in any number of shady schemes at any time.

New Orleans is portrayed as an extremely gritty port city, full of shady drinking holes, graffiti-polluted housing projects and working-class suburbs. It looks like a civilized paradise, however, compared to Panama, and it is the third of the movie that the film spends there that is the most enthralling. Panama is portrayed as the essence of wild chaos, most notably expressed by the fenced-in compound of local crime lord Gonzalo (Diego Luna), complete with machine-gun toting guards and an assembly line of counterfeit greenbacks, cocaine and exotic animals, all waiting to be smuggled into the US. It is and exotic and thrilling locale, rarely portrayed in movies, and the scenes there include a very effective action set-piece that is bloody and thrilling. It is also fun to see the progress of a massive freighter through the Panama Canal – because really, when have you seen that in a film?

Kormákur’s talent shows itself best when handling the sheer immensity of his props. The freighter and its containers are used to great effect, their sheer weight and bulk providing action scenes that are highly unusual and innovative. Tension is kept high, and there is a fair degree of suspense. The cast is excellent, including the always fantastic Ben Foster as Chris’ old smuggling buddy and the always awesome J.K. Simmons, playing against type as the surly Captain of the freighter. Landry Jones also makes an impression as a young, intense actor to watch out for.

Unfortunately the storytelling is very muddled in places, and the central villain, as played by Ribisi, is unconvincing and theatrical, which is greatly to the detriment of the film’s otherwise realistic tone (as far as an action thriller can have a realistic tone). Foster is perfect in his role, but you wonder how much better he could have been in Ribisi’s role, and whether Ribisi might have fared better in Foster’s. For some reason Ribisi has been allowed to chew the scenery while the rest of the cast play it straight, and it disrupts the tone of an otherwise tight and genuinely exciting adult big-screen thriller. It is greatly to Walhberg’s credit, as a producer with casting and crewing clout, that he has given the opportunity to an outside-the-box creative such as Kormákur to show off his skills in the context of a big Hollywood spectacle. We’ll hear a lot more from Kormákur, without a doubt. As he said in a recent interview, “Just because I was born on the island [Iceland] doesn’t mean I want to spend the rest of my life telling stories for 300,000 people.”

Buck *** (out of five)

It would be a very hard-hearted person indeed who would not warm to the gentle charms of Buck, a documentary portrait of Buck Brannaman, an extremely gifted horse trainer who spends his time touring the western states of the USA, giving clinics to – and frequently amazing – small groups of owners and their horses and the larger groups who pay just to watch. Buck is a famed and beloved character of the modern west and he is a deeply charming and likable guy, supported by a picture-perfect family, including one daughter who is fast becoming an amazing rider and trainer in her own right. it would all be too good to be true, too rosy and purely delightful, were it not for Buck’s dark backstory, involving an an extremely violent father, who, when Buck’s mother died, became even more of a monster, essentially beating Buck and his brother on a nightly basis until finally an intervention occurred. The way Buck treats horses, with great respect and gentleness, is an obvious antidote to the brutality of his youthful suffering, and it’s greatly moving. The milieu of horse ownership and training in the modern American West is also a fascinating one – everyone, but everyone, really do wear the hats – and overall this low-key, fondly personal look at one of life’s gifted but hardly world-famous personages is a swift ninety minutes well spent.

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