Archives

Contraband teems with action, Red Tails doesn’t quite soar high enough

by Mark Burger

Contraband is a pleasant surprise on two fronts: It’s an American remake of a European film (2008’s Reykyavik-Rotterdam) and it’s a January release, but it’s a success — an exciting and stylish crime yarn produced and directed elowo’s wingman Joe “Lightning” Little is a reckless hotshot — the pilots are all depicted as stalwart, true-blue, salt-ofthe-earth types.

The occasional racist white character, such as Bryan Cranston’s Col. Mortamus, is portrayed as a one-note bigot and nothing more. Some of the film’s dialogue downright dreadful, and the usually reliable Terrence Blanchard’s score feels out of place.

Yet, as in a number of movies about flight, the aerial scenes carry the day, as does the comfortable, unforced onscreen camaraderie among the actors. With Terrence Howard and Cuba by Baltasar Kormakur, who produced and starred in the earlier film.

Mark Wahlberg, also a producer, stars as Chris Farraday, now a legitimate businessman (security systems) after a long and lucrative turn as a smuggler. When brotherin-law Andy (Caleb Landry Jones) ditches a shipment during a customs run and finds himself in potentially deadly debt to greasy crime boss Tim Briggs (Giovanni Ribisi, having a very good time being bad), it’s Chris who agrees to even the score by going on one more smuggling run to Panama, where the plan is to purchase counterfeit cash and bring it back.

Needless to say, very little goes according to plan, and with time running out Chris finds himself on the run of his life, in more ways than one — at which point the double-crosses and plot twists commence. It’s best not to scrutinize the story too closely, lest the seams start to show, but this is a high-adrenaline diversion that delivers the action it promises and then some.

Wahlberg strides through the proceedings in appropriately macho, tough-guy fashion, but perhaps reflective of his previous success in ensemble casts (Boogie Nights, The Departed and I (Heart) Huckabees come to mind), he’s surrounded by a solid actors who make their mark: Diego Luna (in a show-stopping turn as a Panamanian crime lord), Ben Foster, JK Simmons, Lukas Haas, William Lucking, David O’Hara (rapidly cornering the market on playing cold-blooded Irish gangsters) and Kate Beckinsale, as Chris’ endangered wife Kate (easy enough to remember). Hers is something of a thankless role, but she does her best and handles an American accent well.’ 

story was previously dramatized in a well-received HBO film in 1995.

This big-screen dramatization of the story, which marks the feature debut of director Anthony Hemingway, was produced under the auspices of George Lucas, who also directed reshoots when Hemingway was contractually obligated to return to the “Treme” series — so it’s hardly a surprise that the film works best when it’s airborne. The action scenes boast impressive state-of-the-art CGI effects, even if they sometimes look a little too clean.

Unfortunately, John Ridley and Aaron McGruder’s script, based on John B. Holway’s book, is a compendium of hoary war-movie cliches populated by stock characters. Aside from a few predictable character flaws — Nate Parker’s flight leader Marty “Easy” Julian drinks too much and David Oyelowo’s wingman Joe “Lightning” Little is a reckless hotshot — the pilots are all depicted as stalwart, true-blue, salt-ofthe-earth types.

The occasional racist white character, such as Bryan Cranston’s Col. Mortamus, is portrayed as a one-note bigot and nothing more. Some of the film’s dialogue downright dreadful, and the usually reliable Terrence Blanchard’s score feels out of place.

Yet, as in a number of movies about flight, the aerial scenes carry the day, as does the comfortable, unforced onscreen camaraderie among the actors. With Terrence Howard and Cuba

Gooding Jr. (who appeared in the HBO film) mostly relegated to the background, barking orders while trying to keep the Tuskegee program in operation, the principal heroics fall to Parker and Oyelowo, who acquit themselves admirably, as do the other members of the Tuskegee team, among them Elijah Kelley, Kevin Phillips, Cliff Smith (better known as “Method Man”), Marcus T. Polk, Ne-Yo (who bids faier to steal every scene he’s in) and Andre Royo, who adds a bit of comic relief as mechanic “Coffee” Coleman, forever berating the pilots for bringing his planes back shot full of holes.

The basic story of Red Tails is a good, inspiring one, and the film is occasionally rousing and likewise inspiring, but there’s the nagging feeling that it could, and perhaps should, have been better. Red Tails named — not unexpectedly — for the color of the planes, is undeniably well-made and well-intentioned.

It’s hardly a bad film or an insulting one, but there’s the air of a missed opportunity, or at least an opportunity that wasn’t taken full dramatic advantage of.

Share: