American remakes of foreign films are almost always something to be dreaded, but Contraband is a surprising exception to the rule. Perhaps this is because the movie was directed and produced by Baltasar Kormákur, who starred in and produced the Icelandic flick Reykjavik-Rotterdam on which Contraband is based. More cynical filmgoers may be unimpressed by this gritty little crime-thriller since it’s not exactly original or groundbreaking, yet Contraband is satisfying entertainment if you can suspend your pretensions. Its production values are surprisingly solid for such a low-budget film and the storytelling is both involving and gripping, though the script could’ve used a few more revisions before reaching the production stage.

Formerly a professional career smuggler, Chris Farraday (Wahlberg) chose to abandon the life of a criminal in order to raise his two children with loving wife Kate (Beckinsale) and make an honest living. Chris’ serene life is threatened, though, when Kate’s idiotic little brother Andy (Jones) botches an expensive cocaine smuggling operation for ruthless drug lord Tim Briggs (Ribisi), who now wants blood. Realising that his family will not be safe until the debt is paid, Chris is forced back into his former line of work, cooking up a money counterfeiting scheme which requires boat passage to Panama. Chris reunites with his former associates to pull off the heist, but nothing goes according to plan.

You cannot accuse writer Aaron Guzikowski of not paying enough attention to the plot here. Standard-issue heist action-thrillers are usually flimsy in terms of story, yet Contraband positively excels – it offers up plenty of unexpected plot twists and turns. The heist should be so simple, yet things keep going wrong and the stakes are continually upped, which is why this film is so engaging. Contraband‘s key pratfall, however, is that Kate is too much of a clichéd, vulnerable damsel in distress. It would have been more interesting if Kate was Chris’ equal; if she encouraged Chris to do the job to save Andy rather than just issuing typical warnings and maintaining that there must be “another way” without offering suggestions. Hell, it would’ve been even better if Kate played a role in the heist herself. Furthermore, Tim’s crime racket is not especially intimidating – Tim’s residence (where his daughter lives) appears to be known by everyone, and there don’t appear to be many enforcers (none of which guard Tim’s house). Chris’ friends could have obliterated Tim’s syndicate without breaking a sweat, or even just assassinated Tim.

Contraband looks astonishingly assured for a $25 million production, and it’s probably thanks to the low budget that the film feels so authentic since it had the freedom to be dark and edgy. Lacking the sugar-coated gloss of an expensive PG-13 blockbuster, the world of crime depicted here is grimy and raw – there’s blood, the characters are given realistic leeway to swear, and you truly get the feeling that nobody is safe. Kormákur was right at home with this material – a shootout between criminals and law enforcers in Panama is nail-bitingly tense, and it’s impossible to take your eyes away from the screen as the film barrels towards its edge-of-your-seat conclusion. Admittedly, cinematographer Barry Ackroyd (Green ZoneThe Hurt Locker) adopted a dreaded shaky-cam routine here, yet it actually works to the film’s benefit; the gritty handheld style suits the material. Topping this off, there are a few nice song choices from time to time, and Clinton Shorter’s score is top-drawer.

Mark Wahlberg can play roles like this in his sleep. To his credit, though, he didn’t actually phone this one in or sleepwalk through the film for the paycheque – he seems fully immersed in the material, and the intensity he brings to the role of Chris is spot-on. Alongside him, Ben Foster and Kate Beckinsale also bring their A game to the roles of Sebastian and Kate (respectively), but it’s Giovanni Ribisi who absolutely steals the show as Tim. Ribisi is delightfully hammy and over-the-top, and he clearly had an utter blast playing such a callous kingpin. Sure, Ribisi’s performance borders on cartoonish, but he’s a pleasure to watch.

To be sure, Contraband has room for improvement, but it delivers proverbial thrills in a satisfying fashion. This is a fun, exciting little thriller with several exhilarating action sequences, and it kept this reviewer rapt for its two-hour duration. Nevertheless, Contraband has little staying power – it’s pretty shallow, and it will probably be long forgotten by the end of 2012.