Contraband wants to work on the level of Apollo 13 (1995), which sets up the problem our hero must work against then spends the rest of the movie making the problem more and more complicated. The problem is that Contraband doesn’t share Apollo 13’s clear storytelling. For a while it maintains a similar energy but it can’t sustain it and falls apart.
Chris cooks up a scheme to smuggle in counterfeit money from Panama by stowing away on a barge and impersonating a crew member. It’s during this section that the movie builds the most steam. The plan goes haywire in a number of ways, and the resourceful Chris is undercut by incompetence on his team and unknown turncoats in his inner circle. The movie easily sets up what is supposed to happen—there’s a large cell hidden behind a panel in the bowels of the ship where Chris will hide the loot—and then it relishes throwing flies in the ointment. First, the counterfeit money is no good, it’s printed on the wrong type of paper, then Chris finds himself forced into hijacking an armored car to get the right counterfeit dough.
However, this stretch ends up being the high point and it’s not all that high to begin with. The story is convoluted; there are too many people who are double and triple crossing each other because they owe money to too many other people so our interest fizzles pretty quickly. The movie would be better served sticking with Chris’s journey back to New Orleans under the gaze of the suspicious boat captain played by J.K. Simmons, but it doesn’t develop that. Instead it gets bogged down trying to exploit Beckinsale’s damsel in distress, which gets pretty gratuitous but never truly tense, because the screenplay devoted more thought to the ways of terrorizing her than it did to making her a character.
Contraband is a little better than the middle of the road but just a little. It’s steadily made by Kormákur who starred in the Icelandic movie that inspired this one. There’s nothing here that hasn’t been done better somewhere else, but I enjoyed Diego Luna’s crazed counterfeiter and the gleeful complications that stack up against Chris, but that section represents less than 40% of the movie. When it’s content to be by-the-numbers action nonsense, it comes close to rising above itself, but it lacks Wahlbergian focus and tries to bring in too many elements that it isn’t skilled enough to handle. What results isn’t a ruined evening but not a particularly memorable one.