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Aficionados and enthusiasts for crime fiction, broadly defined to include a lot of sub-genres like spy fiction, often develop a certain pre-occupation with cinema adaptations of their favourite authors. This pre-occupation frequently presages disappointment. Rarely does the cinema do justice to a crime author’s work. The number of dud adaptations of great works of crime fiction is legion. It is, as a dogmatic friend used to say, not even a matter of opinion but simply a matter of fact. Thus no film adaptation of any of the ten or so Dortmunder novels by Donald E Westlake measures up to what Westlake’s admirers might have hoped for. Only a couple of the many adaptations of Elmore Leonard’s books even get remotely close to the master’s mixture of insouciance and matter of factness about criminal behaviour, the cool calm plotting, the gorgeous characters, the terse dialogue. In fact I suspect that the best Elmore Leonard movie ever put on the screen is Martin Brest’s Midnight Run (1988) with Robert De Niro as a bounty hunter and Charles Grodin as the somewhat bewildered criminal businessman caught in his trap. The only problem is that it’s not based on a Leonard novel but simply a movie which captures the Leonard spirit better than most.

In a similar fashion, most efforts at getting Patricia Highsmith’s novels on the screen have dumbed her down, reduced the focus on guilt and suspicion in favour of, well, simply something else far more dull and prosaic. Still there are Highsmithian movies, one of the best being Dominik Moll’s Harry He’s Here to Help and another being Shinichi Nagasaki’s Dogs, a film made on the cheap in grainy black and white video for a Japanese cable company and only ever screened outside Japan perhaps once at a long ago Vancouver Film Festival. The various Ripleys, interesting as some are, have remained as artefacts that never, in this enthusiast’s mind at least, quite got to the nub of aesthetic criminality which takes sheer pleasure at getting away with it. Clement and Delon probably still got the closest with Plein Soleil. Highsmith loved Ripley so much she wrote five books featuring him, relishing outlaw notions placed along side a quiet and reserved demeanour. I’m still unconvinced that she ever conceived of him as gay but I cant confess to being a sophisticate in these delicate and discreet matters of sexual orientation.

Another crime writer from the pantheon, George V Higgins has had even more trouble. His first novel The Friends of Eddie Coyle was quickly made into a very fine movie by the Brit Peter Yates way back in the early 70s. It did a good job of capturing the Boston criminal milieu and the Higgins method of story telling. This latter involved, increasingly as the writer matured, long slabs of conversation which reported rather than recorded the action. No other Higgins book from the several dozen he wrote in what we might see now as a Balzacian enterprise to chronicle Boston’s high and low, its politics and its society, over thirty years or so, has ever been filmed. But now something’s happening. News reaches us from the estimable reporter/critic for SBS Don Groves that another Higgins adaptation is in the works at last. Higgins’ third book ‘Cogan’s Trade’ is now being readied for release. It is directed by the director of Chopper and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, the Antipodean Andrew Dominik. It stars Brad Pitt, Ben Mendelsohn, Bella Heathcote, Scoot McNairy, Ray Liotta, Richard Jenkins, James Gandolfini and Sam Shepard. One word of warning, the locale has been shifted from Boston to New Orleans.

Never having read anything by Janet Evanovich, I have no idea whether the first adaptation of one of her books, One for the Money, featuring her female detective Stephanie Plum gets to the nub of what makes the series so popular. The books are now up to about number nineteen, each featuring the consecutive number in the title plus there are few in-between stories tossed off as well. The recent movie version starring Katherine Heigl was clearly intended to start a franchise for the actress, who also acted as producer. Whether any more will follow, given the modest box office in the US and elsewhere including here, is doubtful. It may thus join Sara Paretzky’s V I Warshawski as a one off failure to launch another feisty female detective. Regrettably both films were poorly scripted, and directed in a largely lifeless fashion with not an ounce of energy. I’d be surprised if Evanovich aficionados had this movie and character in mind but only Evanovich fans can judge.

You cant however say that Baltasur Kormakur’s Contraband is lacking in life or energy or imagination. This is one of the very best crime thrillers of recent times and what makes it so mostly is the fact that every step, every doublecross and betrayal, every false move and plan gone wrong is perfectly set up. Australians who have taken any interest at all in the acquisitions of our national art collection may well be in a better position to work out the final mellow moment long before it’s revealed but otherwise there is a sense of perfect and intricate staging and plotting that beings every detail tumbling into its logical place. As well as that however, the action set pieces, most notably the Panama-based scene involving the purchase of the fake notes that ends up as a forced participation in a brazen street hold up, a race to escape and meet a sailing deadline and a smart move to beat a customs search, are filmed with the energy and stunt wizardry of someone like Walter Hill at his very slam bang best. In putting the puzzle together I was reminded of the reaction that followed the screening of Johnnie To’s Life Without Principle, a much more sedate crime story but one in which, similarly, every bit of business on the screen finally fits into a perfect mosaic.

Finally, in the context of this extravagant praise what are we therefore to make of a capsule review in the Sydney Morning Herald which is not merely dismissive of the movie but says “that the script doesn’t trust our powers of concentration and it abandons any thought of making sense. Director Baltasar Kormakur is hoping to confuse us to the point that we’ll overlook the ludicrousness of what we’re watching.” Gee whiz, dunno how you could you could come to those conclusions but there you mysteriously are.

So, finally, who is Baltasar Kormakur, the director of this excellent, rather superior movie? I am told he has made other films, most notably an Icelandic movie called Jar City which plays, or at least has recently played on World Movies. He was also the star of a movie called Reykjavik-Rotterdam which it turns out is the original Icelandic film on which Contraband is based.

Posted March 5th, 2012