A film review by Craig J. Koban May 9, 2022


2022, R, 103 mins.

Chris Pine as James Harper  /  Ben Foster as Mike  /  Gillian Jacobs as Brianne  /  Eddie Marsan as Virgil  /  Kiefer Sutherland as Rusty  /  Florian Munteanu as Kaufman  /  Tait Fletcher as Dalton  /  Fares Fares as Salim  /  Nina Hoss as Katia /  J. D. Pardo as Eric  /  Amira Casar as Sylvia  /  Tyner Rushing as Christine Denton  /  Toby Dixon as Young James  /  Brian Lafontaine as Captain

Directed by Tarik Saleh  /  Written by J.P. Davis





THE CONTRACTOR has several good elements in place to make for a solid film: 

A robustly committed lead performance, workmanlike direction, some noble minded thematic complexity, and strong production values.  

Unfortunately, this Tarik Saleh directed thriller (shot in 2019 and finally seeing the release light of day now) seems hopelessly caught battling between two distinct tones: It wants to be a bombastic action picture and a solemn minded message drama about the plight of struggling military veterans and the levels they go to in order to makes ends meet back in civilian life.  I think that the core arc of THE CONTRACTOR - soldiers that are trained and called upon to kill for God and country that are taken for granted back on the home front - is noteworthy and timely enough, but the wholly pedestrian approach with this material makes the end result feel like dozens of other similar and better films that have come before it.  That, and it seems like a very thinly veiled attempt to give star Chris Pine his own JASON BOURNE franchise starter, and the obviousness here taints this picture and its effectiveness. 

Still, it sure is a blast to see the stars of the masterful HELL OR HIGH WATER in Pine and Ben Foster reunited, albeit in a vastly inferior effort.  Both of them play ex-military men turned mercenaries that - in a highly predictable chain of events - realize that their current mission is anything but safe and by the books.  Pine plays James Harper, a highly decorated soldier that seemingly has it all in the military and is resoundingly good in his role, but his illegal use of steroids to treat a horrible knee injury to keep him active gets noticed by his superiors, which subsequently leads to his involuntary discharge from service and - worse yet - a complete sacrifice of any future pension or health benefits.  He has a loving and supporting wife (played by a mostly wasted Gillian Jacobs in the obligatory loving and supporting wife role), but she reminds him that bills are pilling up and both start to have grave misgivings about how they're going to survive as a family moving forward. 

Desperate for work and a high payday, James hooks with his service BFF in Mike (Foster), who has been through relative hell and back with James during their past tours of duty, with the latter even saving his life at one point, leaving Mike forever in his debt.  Mike decides to let his pal into his new inner circle as a mercenary by introducing him to Rusty (Kiefer Sutherland), who runs a top secret black ops unit that gets paid insanely well for incredibly dangerous missions overseas.  Fully on the verge of complete financial ruin, James eagerly accepts his new clandestine job, and within no time both James and Mike - alongside their fellow team members - are sent to Germany to locate  a scientist named Salim (Fares Fares), whom they believe is actually a dangerous bioweapons terrorists that's a perceived threat on the world.  James and his new squad are told by Rusty that their target is of the utmost importance on a level of national security, but things soon go south very fast during this mission, leaving James fending for himself and his life, not to mention being slammed with the painful revelation that his new contractor employer may or may not be on the level at all. 



James' crisis of conscience early on in THE CONTRACTOR is what gives the film some decent story momentum.  On a psychological level, the film is delving into all of the sacrifices that this character has made in his past life as a soldier and, like so many other veterans, is sadly struggling to support himself and his family post career.  As an added kick to the gut, James is booted out of the military under such embarrassing terms, leaving him struggling to confront whether his time as a soldier was even an honorable one to begin with.  This propels him - largely against his wife's will - to seek out employment with that black ops team.  He becomes enthralled by the relative wealth and luxury that Mike lives in and seems to enthusiastically want a piece of the action.  J.P. Davis' screenplay doesn't lay on the jingoistic themes too thick here.  In James' journey for his piece of the American dream - and while walking in his father's footsteps as a soldier, which was entrenched in him since nearly birth as his destiny - he gets tested on multiple levels and faces mounting pressures that hold him back.  There's a lot going on here on a thematic level, especially for how THE CONTRACTOR has much to say about life in the military and how lack of universal health care has plagued James' family.   

But, let's be honest, if you've seen one action thriller like THE CONTRACTOR then you've essentially have seen them all.  You know the type I'm talking about: Decent and honor bound family/servicemen that are dealt with insurmountable physical and financial hardships that strive to remain relevant and worthy in the military, but are driven to take shady work when they have no other options.  The narrative arc of THE CONTRACTOR is a simple one of a good man making drastic mistakes in trusting the wrong people, and then pays for it.  You can sense the plot trajectory from a proverbial mile away, especially for the manner it's so painfully telegraphed.  You just know that Sutherland's black ops manager is not entirely the man he claims to be.  You just know that there must be many catches with the black ops work that Mike has done to secure such an extravagent lifestyle for his wife and kids.  You just know that the first mission that James finds himself on in his new role as a black ops contractor will unavoidably blow up in his face and cause him even more anguish.  Anyone that has seen a genre piece like THE CONTRACTOR will not be surprised in the slightest with what happens here; the story goes form beat to beat with numbing predictability.   

Also, in terms of these lone and determined men versus the system films, THE CONTRACTOR really comes off as a poor man's JASON BOURNE clone throughout, replete with globetrotting adventure, government conspiracies, and a troubled, but ruthlessly determined hero - essentially alone and on his own - to pick up the pieces of the mess he's in to stick it back to those in power that have wronged him.  And it's not that Pine isn't good in this derivative role.  To the contrary, he gives a fairly layered and thanklessly nuanced turn as a man that's tormented by trust issues on multiple levels, but has to develop the an inner resolve to keep himself alive and get some much needed answers.  As I mentioned in my recent review of ALL THE OLD KNIVES (a much better thriller than this), I find that Pine is a better actor than given credit for and deserves to have meatier and and more mature roles that challenge him (he's good in crowd pleasing blockbusters like STAR TREK and WONDER WOMAN, but he's capable of elevating himself far above populist entertainment).  Pine is certainly as capable as Matt Damon before him in these type of tightly wound action hero roles, but the problem with THE CONTRACTOR is that it's a poser effort and comes off like a lazy facsimile of the far superior BOURNE films.   

This film looks good, though, with Saleh making the most of the natural locations that Germany and Romania have to offer up here.  He kind of falters, however, when it comes to the action beats, which range from decent to misguidedly choreographed and edited (if anything, THE CONTRACTOR certainly lacks the smoothly orchestrated, but rough and rugged visceral impact that directors like Doug Liman and Paul Greengrass gave the BOURNE entries).  THE CONTRACTOR isn't a bad thriller, per se, but it's an aggressively paint-by-numbers affair that mostly fails at imbuing any level of freshness of approach to a rather packed genre.  The setup here is intriguing enough, some of the ideas about servicemen strife is worthy of exploration, and Pine and Foster have such solid and natural chemistry together on screen that they almost save the film from being hopelessly forgettable.  THE CONTRACTOR dutifully checks off many boxes for the genre it inhabits, but it lacks true suspense, innovation, and frankly a reason to exist with the other heavy hitters out there that it's trying to emulate.  

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