James Harper (Pine), a Special Forces sergeant in the US Army, is involuntarily discharged without benefits. Broke and suddenly unemployed, he takes a high-risk private contractor job in Germany to settle his debts. When the job doesn’t go to plan, Harper is forced to take matters into his own hands.
The Contractor was originally called Violence Of Action, which at least gave some hint of explosions or excitement. The title they ultimately settled on sounds like a film where Chris Pine plays a handyman who spends most of the running time offering quotes to sort out your extension. It comes as some relief, then, that this film, a sharp, cool-blooded thriller, is not quite as generic as that new name threatens.
The first half-hour doesn’t immediately allay those fears, though, in an opening act that often feels stultified by the clichés of the territory. Sergeant James Harper (Chris Pine) is a dedicated military man in a very traditional sense: God-fearing, family-focused, plays by the rules, salutes the flag. He is also drowning in debt, and when a new commanding officer suddenly forces him out of his job, he needs work and money fast. Motivations and stakes are swiftly established: he’s broke, and he has a family to feed.
So on the advice of his best friend (played by Ben Foster, joining Pine in a pleasing Hell Or High Water reunion), he takes on some private security contract work, not knowing its risks or details, only its massive payday. The first act lightly offers some melancholy musings on the fate of veterans, post-service; flashbacks to Harper’s jingoistic military father clumsily send the point home.
Pine is solid in a guarded, muscular performance.
Then, suddenly, it kicks into gear, a ramp up in tension and pace heralded by the arrival of the contractor-in-chief, played by Kiefer Sutherland as a kind of alt-universe Jack Bauer. Details of the mission are shady, but Harper is promised it is “strictly matters of national security”, and “scalpel work”. He and his team are tasked with infiltrating a Berlin lab with supposed terrorist links: get in, get out, bish-bash-bosh.
When the extrajudicial mission goes south, as it invariably must, Swedish director Tarik Saleh injects the action with Greengrass-ian pace and panache, and in fact there is more than a whiff of Bourne about this film: in its über-capable hero, ashen-faced tone, handheld camerawork and stinging, brutal fight scenes. The script, from J.P. Davis, doesn’t pander either. Much carefully researched talk of assets and codexes fills the exposition, and there’s the clear influence of ’70s-era paranoia thrillers in its cynical take on establishment lies.
Pine is solid in a guarded, muscular performance, but it’s a role that is more a physical challenge than a mental one: the emotional scenes are either at zero or 100, no middle ground. But he is fully convincing as a lethal, ultra-competent expert in unconventional warfare, and his character’s trajectory serves as a fairly effective metaphor for the military at large: men turned into killing machines without realising the consequences to themselves or those around them. For a title as empty as The Contractor, you might be surprised by how much there is in the tank.
It follows the rules of the genre as unwaveringly as its hero follows orders, but despite that, there’s a tense, tightly constructed thriller here — and Chris Pine makes a decent play as a neo-Bourne.