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“Smuggling with the Enemy”

Grade: C+ (SKIP IT)

“Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.”

That’s not Mark Wahlberg, of course, but Al Pacino in “The Godfather III” and it might just as well serve as the premise of the new action(less) film “Contraband” with Wahlberg as Chris Farrady, an ex-smuggler from New Orleans who’s gone legit for the sake of his hairdresser wife (played by Kate Beckinsale in cheap highlights) and two young sons.

We don’t go to the movies to see former criminals go straight, so it comes as no surprise when all four family members are soon staring down the barrel of a gun.  (And poor Beckinsale takes a beating in this film, from pistols and fists to fenders and a cement mixer.)  Chris’s quiet life working in security quickly crumbles after his dipshit of a brother-in-law (Caleb Landry Jones) bungles a hand-off and ex-con Tim Brigg (Giovanni Ribisi) comes back to town, demanding his money or else.  Chris will have to carry off one last heist to repay Brigg and protect his family.  “Contraband” suffers from the same moral problem that beleaguered “Inception”: it’s hard to root for thieves, so the film struggles to keep Chris out of the cocaine and heroin trade he traverses, insisting instead that it’s those Andrew Jacksons on starch-free paper he’s really after.

As one half of the film’s villainous pair of con-men, Ribisi (“Boiler Room,” “Lost in Translation”) can always be counted on for a performance freshly inspired and here he affects a voice that’s half helium and half hatred.  Before the two wage war against each other, Wahlberg visits his corner-bar and pleads for a reprieve: “Do you know how many passes I gave your brother?”  The reptilian Ribisi replies: “I hated my brother.”  Performances aside, the plot of “Contraband” is bafflingly improbable.  Once Chris sets sail to Panama City to carry out the heist, all kinds of unanswered questions are raised: are the transport-ships that travel the Panama Canal really this easy to hop aboard?  Who knew tanker ships carrying imports were as easy to penetrate as your local Denny’s?  Paintings by Jackson Pollock are so vulnerable to thieves that they can be rolled up like painter’s drop cloths?  Director Baltasar Kormakur, who starred and produced in the 2008 Icelandic original entitled “Reykjavik-Rotterdam,” has a problem with momentum as “Contraband” never leaves the port.

January is customarily the dumping ground for major studio release for two reasons: first, after the first of the year, ticket-buyers are looking at their Christmas credit card bills and cutting back and second, most are still trying to catch up with the Oscar-bound films from the previous fall.  “Contraband” is exactly the kind of film to release while no one’s really looking.  Fresh off the boat in Panama, Wahlberg utters the film’s most telling lines in this exchange with a  Panamanian druglord alarmed that Chris isn’t happy with the product: “No bueno?”

“No,” says Wahlberg, “No fucking bueno.”