I shall begin with a parable.

Barry Ackroyd, in more than a quarter of a century as a cinematographer, has been responsible for many fine pieces of work, with at least a handful of award-worthy turns in projects like The Wind That Shakes the Barley, Green Zone, and The Hurt Locker (for which he received an Oscar and ASC nomination). To those who care to look, it's been obvious for a while that he's a talented man and his presence a welcome sight, even if he's not the most versatile kid on the block. And for all that, I don't think I was ever quite as blown away by just how good Ackroyd is at his job until I'd seen what he made out of Contraband, a working class thriller about smugglers that is the absolute epitome of the words "a January release". Not that Contraband is his masterpiece, or something absolutely ridiculous like that. But it's not as far off as you might think, and here's why it strike me as important: it's one thing to do great work in a Ken Loach or Paul Greengrass film, or in an Iraq War picture made with enough integrity to eventually dance into a healthy clutch of awards. It's quite another to do that in a quiet little Mark Wahlberg vehicle that is not, by any stretch of the imagination, going to end up in the best-of-year conversations next January. And yet, this film does, in fact, boast great cinematography, not the showy noir kind of cinematography that some might have thought to use, but an appealingly rough-hewn mixture of artificial lighting and pointedly graceless handheld camera that magnificently captures the rhythm and texture of the film's unrefined mise en scène. Ackroyd did not have to do this, but he did; maybe because he was paid to, maybe because honor drove him to, maybe because he's too good to allow something crappy to come out under his name.

My point isn't that Barry Ackroyd is a consummate professional and a fine craftsman, although if it was, it still would have been worth the saying. Rather, I am struck by how much the whole of Contraband is basically the exact same thing as the cinematography, over and over again: it is a film made by people who do not seem to notice or care that they are making a crappy mid-winter action film that people only see because there's nothing else out. It's a film that it would be incredibly easy to regard as make-work and to accordingly look down on it, except that not a single person involved appears to have done so. They are all Ackroyds, giving their level best, however good that is (it shouldn't be a surprise to anybody that J.K. Simmons's level best is a shitload better than Lukas Haas's level best, for example), and always treating this grubby genre material as though it really does deserve their respect and effort. That sort of attitude is eminently respectable, and honestly gratifying, for meat-and-potatoes films like this are a dying breed. Contraband certainly doesn't reinvent the wheel, but on the other hand, it's such a very nice wheel, perfectly round and with the spokes in exactly the right places. The world needs good wheels.

In this film, Wahlberg plays Chris Farraday, a former smuggler based out of New Orleans who has since gone straight and started a modest business as home security specialist (this information - the smuggling part - is communicated in glaringly ham-handed expository dialogue that is the only really obvious misstep in first-time writer Aaron Guzikowski's adaptation of a 2008 Icelandic film). As it happens, Chris's brother-in-law Andy (Caleb Landry Jones) has taken up smuggling himself, only he's terrible at it, and has managed to get himself deep in debt to an erratic local gangster, Tim Gibbs (Giovanni Ribisi, whose twitchy, mannered performance is readily the worst part of the movie). In response to Chris's overtures to smooth all this over, Gibbs has threatened the ex-smuggler's wife, Kate (Kate Beckinsale) and sons. This spooks Chris enough that he agrees to go on One Last Job, leaving Kate under the protection of his best friend, affable crimelord Sebastian Abney (Ben Foster) while he jaunts off to Panama City to bring back a pallet of counterfeit money the size of a small car.

The pleasures of all this are utterly simplistic: watching a smart, capable man execute a well-oiled crime and save his family. Not a blessed thing about the film is challenging, though a good deal of it is smarter than it has to be; perhaps as a side-effect of casting Wahlberg, one of our great reigning cinematic avatars of blue collar toiling, Contraband ends up working better than it has any particular reason to as a study of how the working class of New Orleans lives and feels. It's not a great work of social realism, but it also understands that social realism is a thing worth admiring; similar in tone if not in ambition to Rocky and its blend of social document and rousing sports movie. Indeed, playing around with genre is one of the things Contraband does best, though not insistently: the first part is a drama about the rough life of an ex-smuggler, the second is a gritty caper film about the planning and execution of a smuggling job that goes wrong, and the finale is an action movie and chase sequence. Each of these three different movies all works quite well at what it does, though the climax of the action film rather betrays the moral perspective of the working class social study that opens (turns out that there isn't anything wrong with a little dirty money).

Making his first wide-release English-language feature, Baltasar Kormákur, of the breakthrough Icelandic picture 101 Reykjavik, directs crisply and effectively, keeping the pacing and thrills up (a cat-and-mouse sequence among the containers on a cargo ship sets a standard for nail-biters that the rest of 2012 will be hard-pressed to maintain), and dragging good performances out of everyone from Beckinsale in her rare "I'm actually trying" mold to an absolutely delightful J.K. Simmons being all kinds of burly and huffy as the captain of a ship with a sharp mistrust of Chris. It is a brisk movie, and a terrifically engaging one; not designed to win any awards, mind you, but frankly, it's more successful at what it's doing and a hell of a lot more watchable than most of what is designed to win awards, even if it has a significant tendency to evaporate pretty much the second the credits begin to roll.