Since 2016, actors Chris Pine and Ben Foster have quietly begun assembling their own cinematic universe, delivering nuance and verisimilitude in riveting films like The Finest Hours and Hell Or High Water. They yet again prove a formidable team in The Contractor, director Tarik Saleh’s high-stakes, low-energy actioner about a former Special Forces officer who takes an ill-fated job as a military contractor. As before, the actors deliver convincing performances that elevate their characters’ misguided intentions, but in comparison to its predecessors, Saleh’s film lacks the claustrophobic atmosphere needed to transform a military adventure into a bona fide political thriller.
Pine plays James Harper, a sergeant who suffers from persistent knee injuries after multiple tours of duty and despite his best efforts cannot sufficiently rehabilitate his body enough to return to service. After testing positive for a cocktail of illegal drugs in his system meant to accelerate the repair of his knee, James receives a dishonorable discharge from his commanding officer, cutting off the pension and health care he, his wife Brianne (Gillian Jacobs) and their young son Jack (Sander Thomas) depend upon. He soon faces a choice between taking the kind of private sector gig that would pull him away from his loved ones, and drowning beneath a mountain of debt.
Just before succumbing to despair, James hears from his pal Mike (Foster), a fellow vet who has earned a handsome living since leaving the Army as a freelance contractor for ex-military man Rusty (Kiefer Sutherland). Promising a windfall for James, Mike connects him with Rusty, who offers him a mission to Berlin. But circumstances change drastically after their team completes its mission; both James and Mike are injured and they get separated from one another while evading the local authorities, prompting James not just to try to escape the situation but figure out how he has become embroiled in such a politically complex scenario.
For better or worse, few of the supporting characters serve a material purpose to the story. Jacobs’ role isn’t even sophisticated enough to be James’ Worried Wife Back At Home, instead adding some conventional fuel for his choices and his overall arc. Eddie Marsan doesn’t show up until late in the film, where he offers James a glimpse of things to come if he doesn’t find a way out of the lifestyle he’s chosen. And Sutherland isn’t given enough material to hint at Rusty’s ulterior motives, let alone present himself as ethically compromised.
As an experienced music video director, Saleh knows how to set a specific tone using evocative imagery, and he and editor Theis Schmidt use montage subtly but particularly effectively to comment on the disservice done to military heroes. Yet for all the confidence Saleh demonstrates in the construction and assembly, his vision is often hamstrung by J.P. Davis’ script, which spoon-feeds its finer points to the audience via a few clunky reams of exposition. Conversely, some scenes still don’t properly coalesce even when they’re (over-)explained, and some noticeably poor dialogue re-recording in the third act brings its story to a clunky conclusion.
Despite all of the screenplay’s faults, it’s a blessing to see a capable hero who’s allowed to get his hands dirty in a story that feels eager to venture into murky moral territory. Pine seems to be transitioning into his Harrison Ford / Robert Redford-style second career phase: an action movie star with great ease and swagger adeptly commanding the screen, instilling his character with pathos and strength. Foster is an equally mesmerizing performer, nimbly adapting to the drama’s ebbs and flows.
Perhaps the biggest shortcoming about this conspiracy thriller is that we’ve seen so many stories like it in the past, rendering its complexities (much less its more simple charms) familiar, even redundant. To that end, The Contractor lacks either the paranoia-fueled pop of Alan J. Pakula’s ’70s work (Klute, The Parallax View), or the muscular proficiency of Wolfgang Petersen’s ’90s output (In The Line Of Fire, Air Force One). As a result, even moderately seasoned viewers will find few surprises in its twists and turns, and little to excite them on a purely visceral level. That leaves Pine and Foster as the constant—and a reliable one—in this emerging cinematic universe of theirs, but even they might not be enough in this to earn another installment this time around.