Contraband offers a series of fine performances in lieu of a memorable film

The month of January has become a notorious dumping ground for films that were never really meant for more than padding the box office totals of major studios at the start of the year.

Last weekend, Paramount Pictures released “The Devil Inside,” a film reported by Deadline Hollywood to have been cheaply acquired some time ago. Its record-breaking January box office release surprised the film’s many detractors and Paramount alike.

Though still not very memorable, “Contraband,” this weekend’s release starring Mark Wahlberg, is a much higher-quality film than the critically ravaged “The Devil Inside.” “Contraband” poses the question, “What would you do to protect your family?” and then lazily attempts to provide an answer during its nearly two-hour running time.

Wahlberg stars as former smuggler Chris Farraday, whose skills are called upon again in the typical “one last job” storyline. Farraday must help his brother-in-law Andy pay back an erratic cocaine dealer named Briggs (Giovanni Ribisi), who’s threatening to kill his wife Kate (Kate Beckinsale) and their two sons after Andy is forced to dispose of a significant amount of drugs following a Port Authority investigation.

“Contraband” offers up familiar heist and gangster movie tropes, from police nearly finding smuggled contraband only to have the smugglers outsmart authorities with their goods appearing elsewhere to a full-scale shootout that’s all Michael Mann-posturing. In fact, with the film’s grainy, high-definition cinematography, it’s hard to believe this film isn’t a lesser Michael Mann film, like “Public Enemies,” starring Johnny Depp, or 2006’s “Miami Vice.”

The few genuinely shocking or suspenseful moments are generally squandered, as the film’s glossy Hollywood sheen doesn’t match its aspirations of being a gritty, drug-fueled crime drama. It wants to be “Traffic” meets “Heat,” an insightful look at the dangers of drug trade wrapped up in a thriller, but falls far too short of its admittedly lofty ambitions.

It’s tough to put a new spin on a genre and storyline that’s been well-crafted so many times in decades past, but director BaltasarKormkur deserves credit for giving it his best shot. Kormkur also starred in the 2008 Icelandic thriller “Reykjavik-Rotterdam,” on which this film is loosely based, which should suggest he’d perhaps have a deeper insight into the story. Ultimately, however, he’s made a mainstream thriller that only occasionally toes the line of an arthouse-worthy drama, up until its miserably contrived ending.

The most praise that should be heaped upon the film is for its performances. Wahlberg, Beckinsale, Ribisi, and in particular “X-Men: First Class” actor Caleb Landry Jones all inject the film with acting that surpasses any recent major releases. Jones in particular is a breakout, holding more than his own in his brief time on screen, making his performances in the upcoming thrillers “Antiviral” and “Byzantium” all the more worth the wait.

There’s also a smattering of other familiar faces within the grainy frames of the film, as “Juno” actor J.K. Simmons pokes his head in for a comedic appearance as the captain of the ship aboard which Wahlberg’s character smuggles his illegal goods, along with enjoyable turns from fine actors like Ben Foster, Diego Luna and Lukas Haas.

While the performances withhold, the uncharacteristically terrible work by Academy Award-nominated “The Hurt Locker” cinematographer Barry Ackroyd and the film’s intrusive blues soundtrack serves as constant reminders that “Contraband” is simply a pale imitation of what’s come before it.

While it may hold audiences’ interest this weekend, as Wahlberg’s star power alone is sure to guarantee the film a decent opening, by the end of the year it will most likely be remembered as a slightly above-average thriller released in the sparse January movie season.