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The Contractor is an empty exercise in action movie nostalgia

The Contractor

Tarik Saleh directs Chris Pine in a mediocre military conspiracy thriller that checks off all the dad movie boxes.

In the 1990s and 2000s, TNT had the market cornered. Every day, or at least it felt that way, the television channel would play a certain kind of action movie. They relied heavily on Tony Scott’s filmography in the early years, and on the Bourne franchise in the later years. Tarik Saleh’s The Contractor would have been a staple on the channel, likely playing favorably to middle-aged fathers on Sunday afternoons. 

Starring Chris Pine, The Contractor follows James Harper, an ex-military man low on cash after being discharged from the Army. Instead of appealing to his American idealism, like the writers do in Shooter, another film that The Contractor relies heavily on, writer J.P. Davis puts Harper in the compromising position of being behind on his bills. To provide for his family, he takes a private contracting job from Rusty Jennings (Kiefer Sutherland), another veteran who’s been chewed up and spit out by the U.S. military system. Throw in Ben Foster as Mike, his old pal from his military days and his new coworker on this “simple” job in Berlin, and you’ve got a blueprint for an action thriller. 

Saleh skimps on the action, though, opting for muddled moments of Harper tending to his knee wounds, laying first in sewers, then in subway stations, and finally in safe houses. Like his predecessors in dozens of movies with similar premises, Harper wants to find out what went wrong, who set him up, and how this supposedly easy mission devolved into chaos. The grand conspiracy that Harper yearns for never pans out, though, sans any real sense of surprise. Wasted talent abounds, as Sutherland, Foster, and Gillian Jacobs serve as bit actors forced into tried-and-true sketches of people in Harper’s life. 

Gillian Jacobs & Chris Pine in The Contractor (Paramount)

Outside of a sleek sequence in a sewer tunnel, the action results in a host of gunfire without the place and scope to understand what’s going on. Without the necessary action or the familial buy-in to keep the audience engaged, Harper’s journey to get home becomes trite. Credit to the director for making the Berlin police able to handle their guns, though, unlike most of these movies, in which the villains never get remotely close to hitting a moving target. Leaving bodies in his wake, Harper seeks revenge, stemming from built-up anger for how he’s been treated by a country he’s sacrificed everything for, a central theme of Saleh’s film. 

Buzzwords are in abundance in Davis’s script, as Harper states, “I’m not my father,” within the first fifteen minutes. Al-Qaeda, bioterrorism, and vaccines are blurted out, both context and meaning sorely missing. Flashbacks consist of an elementary-aged Harper getting a matching American flag with his father, molded to love America with all of his mind and heart. There’s a criticism of unabashed nationalism muddled somewhere within The Contractor, a realization that the government and its departments might not be working in an average citizen’s best interest, and certainly is not always working to create a safe or stable life for its veterans. But this thesis is mismanaged, living within the film yet not examined by its characters. 

Still, the problem remains: why is Harper a wanted man? In a film building towards a conspiracy, the payoff remains minimal, and the general “America isn’t as great as it seems,” shtick has been worn thin, especially when the writer and director don’t engage with the concept beyond the simple stating that it exists. With mostly stale action and a bungled third act missing usual political intrigue, The Contractor feels like a knockoff of better, mid-2000s fare. Pine feels up to the task, grizzled and geared to fight anyone that moves against him, though his dedicated performance can only take the film so far. Sutherland matches him in limited screen time as a worthy adversary, but the both of them have such limited backstories that the audience barely has a stake in all of this fighting. And most frustratingly, Harper’s life never feels like it’s in danger.

The Contractor opens in theaters April 1st.

The Contractor Trailer:

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