Actors Chris Pine and Ben Foster had already carved out impressive careers for themselves long before 2016, but when they were cast as brothers in David Mackenzie’s Best Picture nominee, Hell or High Water, their second film together after The Finest Hours, both actors found a new gear, resulting in the best work of their careers. The chemistry between the actors was palpable and a key ingredient in the film’s success, which landed four Oscar nominations (Picture, Editing, Supporting Actor, and Original Screenplay). The attention for Hell or High Water mainly was spotlighted on the performance by Jeff Bridges and the writing of Tyler Sheridan (both nominated), but, for me, it was the work by Pine and Foster—and their magic together—that made the movie click. So it was with great anticipation that I sat down to watch The Contractor, a new film by director Tarik Saleh, which stars Pine and Foster, their first film together since Hell or High Water. Unfortunately, that anticipation turned to disappointment when it became clear early on that The Contractor not only wastes the natural chemistry between the actors, but it hardly registers any excitement at all, despite its many efforts to the contrary.
Written by J.P. Davis, whose last produced film, The Neighbor, was in 2007, The Contractor is about a disgraced former Special Forces soldier, James Harper (Pine), who is forced to find work in the private sector after losing his benefits when he is discharged from the Army. James reaches out to a former Special Forces buddy, Mike Denton (Foster), who tells James he’s got a job for him, but it will be dangerous. Despite the protestations of James’ wife, played by Gillian Jacobs, James agrees to meet with Rusty (Kiefer Sutherland), a former Green Beret who has put together an elite team of former military men to perform risky and highly secretive operations all around the globe. While James is initially hesitant to get involved in something so dangerous due to his wife’s concerns, when he sees how much money Rusty is offering him for this one-time job, he cannot turn it down. The mission sends James and Mike to Berlin, where their supposedly simple in-and-out operation gets compromised, and James is forced to fend for himself against a relentless team of assassins out to kill him.
The story is contrived and predictable, but that’s almost to be expected in a film like this. From the first few minutes of the film, The Contractor is clearly setting itself up to be a rah-rah military action flick, centered on a proud and sympathetic hero who has no choice but to put himself in harm’s way because he has the perfect family he needs to take care of. However, Davis upends our expectations a bit by setting up the film with every jingoistic stereotype of proud American military men who will sacrifice anything for their country (I counted at least eight different American flags somewhere in the background in the first fifteen minutes), and then showing how those same heroes are betrayed by that same military and country that they are so proud to fight and die for. There is an inherent cynicism in this film that is unexpected, one that I wish had been explored more.
Instead, The Contractor moves quickly beyond its philosophical ideologies and turns into another cookie-cutter shoot-em-up action film, as James is chased by the bad guys and has to use his wits and special skills to outrun them, eventually getting back to confront the ones who betrayed him. If it feels like you’ve seen this before, you have. In everything from Bourne to Bond to Rambo to Hanna, the trope of the heroic, highly skilled lone hero running from and fighting against the same entities that created them is as old as time. It can be an exciting, popcorn-fueled action-packed escape for the audience when done well. But when it’s poorly done, like it is here, it can feel tired and monotonous.
The lack of imagination is The Contractor’s biggest downfall. There is nothing new here, nothing ultimately surprising. But then again, if all you are looking for is the aforementioned Bourne-type big action set pieces featuring our hero trying to outrun the bad guys all over Europe, then The Contractor provides. They may be wholly unbelievable and silly, but the action sequences are loud and big, with bullets and bodies flying everywhere. If that’s what you are looking for, you’ve found the place.
But far beyond the seen-it-all-before action and the predictable sprint towards the surprising twist ending that is neither a twist nor a surprise, the biggest disappointment of this film is the unfulfilled promise of Pine and Foster back together again. While there are a couple of scenes at the beginning and a great one towards the end that is made great simply by these two magnificent actors pinballing off each other, The Contractor fails to give us what we are craving.
If there ever was a Swiss Army Knife of an actor, it’s Chris Pine. He can sing, he can dance, he can be funny, he can be dramatic, and we know he can do action. He has made indie films, and he’s starred in two of the biggest franchises in Hollywood (Star Trek and Wonder Woman). I love that he keeps changing it up, challenging himself to continue to do interesting work in a wide variety of films. All that being said, The Contractor is the rare example of Chris Pine phoning it in. Granted, a military-style action film doesn’t lend itself to great Shakespearean soliloquies, but there is the wish that he could have made more of what was in this character instead of playing it so straight down the middle. He looks the part of the perfect, All-American soldier we cheer for, but I would have liked to have seen Pine, who is fully capable of infusing much more into a simply-constructed character, bring more to the role. It certainly would have made the experience of watching this film more enjoyable.
As for the supporting cast, Foster is, as usual, the best of the bunch. He never misses an opportunity to steal scenes, and a film like this gives him ample opportunity to chew scenery and amplify his caustic, wisecracking and defeatist persona. Foster brings a bit of sadness to every role he plays, and it’s in the fleshing out of each of his character’s inner demons that bring the most joy to watch, but he is given little room to explore here, leaving us with small but enjoyable crumbs of a master class in acting prowess.
It’s nice to see Kiefer Sutherland back in a film after starring on television for the past twenty-plus years. It’s too bad, however, that the part he’s been given to play is so one-note. Jacobs fulfills the standard loving wife/mother who is nervous about her hero husband’s dangerous job role to a tee. Again, there isn’t much more these actors can do with this script, which is bland and built for action, not dialogue.
Despite Saleh and Davis’ best attempts to give us an anti-hero movie that tries to make a point about the American military and the danger of believing in and fighting for something without fully questioning it, The Contractor quickly devolves into a standard action shooting film, pulled straight from a video game. Whatever nuance is intended is quickly quashed by the run-of-the-mill good-guy-being-chased-by-bad-guys thrill. Even though the action sequences are big and bold, there is nothing to hold them together, which, in the end, leaves The Contractor poorly built and a disappointing waste of a reunion that deserved much, much better.