2022, R, 103 min. Directed by Tarik Saleh. Starring Chris Pine, Ben Foster, Gillian Jacobs, Eddie Marsan, Kiefer Sutherland.
REVIEWED By Matthew Monagle, Fri., April 1, 2022
There is a certain category of mass-market releases – found in dollar theatres and Redbox kiosks across the country – that thrive on diminishing expectations. Perhaps you know this feeling: a moment during your viewing, only recognizable in hindsight, where you abandon the potential of the film as a whole and instead latch on to individual scenes or performances. If you can understand this turning point, then you can understand how The Contractor is both a mediocre movie and one with enough interesting pieces to (maybe) justify your attention.
James (Chris Pine, still our best Chris) needs money. All that remains from his decade of service is a bad knee and an honorable discharge; before long, the dedicated family man is willing to sell his skills to the highest bidder. So when his friend and former commanding officer Mike (the ever-reliable Foster) turns him on to a black ops private contractor, James is thrilled to find work that allows him to continue to serve his country. But when his first mission takes a sudden and bloody turn for the worse, James soon realizes that dollars matter much more than sides in the world of paramilitary units.
In Hell or High Water, Pine and Foster presented a kind of blue-collar profundity as two brothers who resort to violence to navigate a broken financial system. The Contractor, at least in theory, is playing in the same corner of the sandbox. J.P. Davis’ script has its eye on a generation of broke(n) military veterans. James uses a cocktail of performance-enhancing drugs just to stay in the game; when he is bounced from the service because of a failed blood test, he is more apologetic than angry, despite frequent acknowledgments that his base had taken a don’t-ask-don’t-tell approach to doping. This puts the blame squarely on the shoulders of the military – or would, if The Contractor was willing to keep tugging on that narrative thread.
With no medical pension and looming bills, James elects to go into private contracting, and The Contractor is never better than when it pokes around the edges of paramilitary culture. In a later scene, we are introduced to Virgil (Marsan), an American who operates a word-of-mouth field hospital for freelancers. They sit and compare their journeys; we recognize that Virgil’s is one potential path that James might follow. These are the moments – where The Contractor pulls the curtain back on a semiorganized culture of disillusioned soldiers – where the film finds its voice, and Pine is the perfect vehicle for a generation of warriors who would rather be useful than righteous.
But even as we latch on to these concepts and performances, we recognize it is probably too late. The Contractor seems torn between two types of films: the direct-to-video staple of a reluctant soldier bearing arms to protect his family, and a bleaker condemnation of private contracting (and the systems of power that necessitate its survival). It is the second film that blinks first, leaving Pine and Foster to carry the remaining scenes to their generic conclusion. In the end, our expectations shift – there’s enough here to make The Contractor watchable even as we close the door on it ever being good.
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The Contractor, Tarik Saleh, Chris Pine, Ben Foster, Gillian Jacobs, Eddie Marsan, Kiefer Sutherland