‘It’s much easier to kill, it’s harder to survive’
Special Forces Sergeant James Harper (Pine) is ‘honourably’ discharged from the Army after steroids are found in his system during a routine drug test. He is a family man and, left to fend for himself without a pension or medical support, needs a job.
His friend and former commanding officer Mike (Ben Foster) directs him towards joining an underground private military contracting organisation led by fellow veteran Rusty Jennings (Kiefer Sutherland).
Harper’s first mission sees him sent to Berlin to track down a MacGuffin involving a scientist and some confidential data (in scenes familiar to this type of film; namely, characters camouflaged in the shadows, circling their prey through a telescopic lens). Not all goes to plan, however, and Harper is thrust into a conspiracy and a race against time to discover who betrayed him.
The Contractor starts well, admirably taking its time to introduce us to Harper, his family and his involuntary predicament. It certainly isn’t in any hurry for the first hour or so, but then never really gathers momentum either.
It reminded me of the first Bourne film in its initial sedate, scene-setting. But where that film series compellingly draws you into a layered, labyrinthine puzzle, The Contractor suggests that it is heading towards an engaging, double-crossing tale of intrigue and then somewhat fizzles out.
Once the requisite action kicks in, there are some well-choreographed fight sequences (including a particularly striking punch up in the sewers of Berlin) and Pine makes a very credible action man in a similar vein to Matt Damon. However, where The Contractor gets it most right is in the camaraderie between two central characters.
Pine and Foster: comrades in arms
Pine and Foster display the effortless chemistry that was so evident in their previous on screen collaborations Hell or High Water (2016) and The Finest Hours (2016). Indeed, the film is at its best when the camera is pointed in their direction. There is a genuine sense of friendship and shared experience, subtly expressed in the dark humour of conversations at the graveside of their colleague who has recently committed suicide.
They have seen many of their friends go before them, and so, for these comrades in arms, death is part of life. The normality of death is also apparent in Harper’s family life. As he fixes the roof of his house in an effort to find something to occupy his time after being discharged, his wife Brianne (Gillian Jacobs, in a solid supporting role) dispiritedly announces that another of his friends has died. These understated moments lend The Contractor an initial solemness that soon gets lost amidst its desire to be a conspiracy thriller.
With Foster’s character largely on the periphery of the main action, it is left to Pine to carry the majority of the film, a task he is more than capable of taking on. Harper provides him with the opportunity to show his often underappreciated depth as an actor. He is very convincing as a man shouldering the burden of supporting his family following his dismissal from the Army and carrying scars, not only from an injury sustained in combat, but from the memories of an abusive father, who we see fleetingly in flashback at pertinent points of the story.
Does The Contractor hit the target or is it a misfire?
The Contractor follows the established narrative conventions of a film of its type, but the screenplay by J. P. Davis never really gives the story an opportunity to find its own rhythm and individuality. It seems in such a hurry to get to its conclusion after the halfway point that it appears as if huge chunks of the story are missing.
For a mainstream action film, The Contractor is surprisingly sombre, even dour. This is not necessarily a criticism, but its premise and cast would suggest this would be a film more in line with the plot-focused style of Pine’s brief stint as Tom Clancy‘s CIA operative in the underrated Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (2014).
The problem is, The Contractor starts off as a character piece, then awkwardly tries to switch into a tightly plotted action thriller. And it loses its way. Apart from showcasing a stellar performance from Pine, The Contractor misses its intended mark.
Editor & Artwork: Richard Williams
Images courtesy of Paramount Pictures / STX Financing